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Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape has state recognition affirmed

From the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation's Facebook page

The State of New Jersey reached a settlement with the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation in Bridgeton last week, reaffirming its state-recognized tribal status.

The State acknowledges in the settlementit has officially recognized the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation as an American Indian Tribe since 1982.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware based in Cheswold, Del. and the Nanticoke Indian Tribe based in Millsboro are often described as ‘sister tribes.’

“In one way we are separated because of the governance,” said Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Chief Mark Quiet Hawk Gould. “But in the family, we’re all the same people.”

The settlement concludes a lawsuit in which the roughly 3,000-member Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation alleged the State provided information to federal agencies that called into question its status as an official, State-recognized American Indian Tribe.

Pastor John Norwood, tribal councilman and principal judge for the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, says lack of official recognition presents big barriers.

“In many instances you are not eligible for certain types of scholarships as a student,” said Norwood. “You cannot label your arts and crafts “Indian-made” even if they’ve been passed down from time immemorial.”


In addition to losing the ability to market artwork and crafts as “American Indian made” under the federal Indian Arts & Crafts Act, the Tribal Nation alleged it lost grants for housing, health and human services, educational opportunities and scholarships, ongoing and potential revenue by certified tribal companies, tribal jobs, and a business line of credit while its recognition status was in question.


The settlement includes $2.4 million. Norwood sees this as reflecting losses by the certified tribal companies.  

“Nothing ever feels like justice, because it has nothing to do with the money,” said Chief Gould. “It has to do with what we went through while we were waiting for this to come to resolution.”

But Chief Gould says state recognized status allows the tribe to continue its social programming. He notes the Tribal Nation’s crucial diabetes support program was nullified during the recognition lapse— and the settlement allows the tribe to reapply for it.

“Our tribe is plagued with diabetes,” said Gould. “And those are the things that you look at your community and go, will money fix this? No, money won’t fix this.”

He said the issues with recognition highlighted how much the Tribal Nation’s programs were supporting the community.

“The programs that we lost that were supporting our families, that was the most important thing,” said Gould. “Now we will be eligible to reapply for these programs and to me that is the most generous part about all of this.”

According to the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, the Tribal Nation’s state and federal lawsuits filed in 2015 claimed New Jersey had provided information to the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) that called into question its status as an official, State-recognized American Indian Tribe.

But the Tribal Nation maintained the State had previously recognized it through several valid methods.

According to the settlement, the Tribal Nation alleged these included concurrent resolutions of the state legislature, statutes granting the Tribal Nation certain rights and privileges resulting from its status, official communications with state and federal officials and over three decades of treatment as state-recognized in the course of state business.

In the settlement, the State makes no admission of wrongdoing— but acknowledges it has recognized the Tribal Nation for over 35 years.

As a result of the settlement, the State will formally notify the Indian Arts & Crafts Board, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, U.S. Small Business Association and the U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development of its recognition of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation.

In a statement, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal called tribal rights important. He said the settlement means “the Tribe’s forward progress cannot be impeded by any State-related recognition issues.”

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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