Lenni-Lenape tribe sue Christie, New Jersey over alleged civil rights violations

By Tyler R. Tynes, Press of Atlantic City

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, an American Indian tribe of 3,000 members, filed a civil-rights action lawsuit in federal court against the state and Gov. Chris Christie’s administration Monday.

The tribe alleges that between 1980 and 1982, the state officially recognized it and two other tribes in New Jersey as American Indian tribes, confirming that recognition through numerous actions and subsequent decades, but the Christie administration is attempting to rescind the state’s recognition.

The tribe also alleges in the lawsuit that the state is motivated by an irrational, stereotype-driven fear of an Indian casino. But the tribe’s charter and religious tenets expressly prohibit gaming.

State recognition plays no role in securing federal gaming rights, and the tribe has never sought such rights during 33 years of state recognition, according to the full complaint.

The lawsuit, filed by Washington, D.C., law firm Cultural Heritage Partners, PLLC and New Jersey law firm Barry, Corrado Grassi, PC, alleges that the state’s position regarding the tribe’s status is causing “extensive damage” to tribal members of all ages.

The suit say the tribe faces the imminent loss of dozens of jobs, withdrawal of federal economic development grants, college scholarships, and the revocation of its ability to label the arts and crafts produced by its 40 professional artisans as “American Indian made.”

“They are denying the way we exist,” said Mark Gould, tribal chairman and principal chief of the tribe. “Our people have been an integral part of this region for thousands of years.”

The Governor’s Office did not respond to calls for comment Monday evening.

The Lenape tribe are not recognized as a tribe by the federal government, only by the state. Taking away state recognition would cost health grants for the tribe, many of whose members battle diabetes, Gould said.

The loss of state recognition would also cost the Lenape nearly $260,000 yearly from items labeled “American Indian made,” $600,000 in health grants from the federal government, $650,000 per year in tribal employment, and about $7.8 million from their company, NLT Enterprises, since the company was formed a decade ago, the lawsuit says.

The tribe’s lawyer, Greg Werkheiser, said the withdrawal of recognition injures an already vulnerable community based on a racial stereotype that all tribes want casinos. Gaming has only been available to American tribes since October 1988, when the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was enacted.

Werkheiser has filed eight counts against the state and Christie’s administration.

“They are saying they don’t exist. Imagine what that does economically — not only psychologically,” he said. “Without due process, (this) violates federal and state civil-rights laws. While the rest of the country is having an adult conversation about racial reconciliation, the administration in New Jersey is pretending select minorities out of existence.”

“We are entitled to fair and proper treatment by the state, and to confirmation of our long-held status as a state-recognized tribe,” Gould said.

In 2001, the tribe sued a private citizen who claimed to have his own, new constituted tribe, and the Lenape stopped him from implying association with them and pursuing gaming rights, the lawsuit says.

Since then, the tribe believed, the earliest attempt by the state officials to undermine the tribes’ state-recognized status was a letter written by the Division of Gaming Enforcement in 2001 during the pendency of the lawsuit by the private citizen against the state for a land claim.

The federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board sent its standard inquiry to the state Commission on American Indian Affairs asking for any additions to the state’s list of recognized tribes. Before the commission replied, the state’s Division of Gaming Enforcement intervened, asserting New Jersey has no state-recognized tribes.

The lawsuit says Christie’s admininstration stopped communicating with the tribe for months, and ultimately told the Lenape it would do nothing to resolve the matter.