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N.J. Sued Over Gambling Presumption

(CN) - A Native American tribe sued New Jersey to keep its designation, claiming state officials are trying to repeal it because of the prejudiced notion that the tribe is trying to set up a casino.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe, a 3,000-strong tribe also known as the "Delawares," is one of three state-recognized tribes in New Jersey. It was affirmed as such as recently as 2010 in the state's report to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The tribe, however, eschews gambling altogether and has not attempted to secure gaming rights either via the state or the federal government, according to the lawsuit. It passed a tribal law forbidding any of its members' participation in casino gambling.

A smaller splinter tribe called the Unalachigo Band of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Nation allegedly advocates gambling. In 2007 it unsuccessfully sued the state to have a casino built in on former reservation land in central New Jersey. The other two New Jersey tribes-the Ramapough Mountain Indians and the Powhatan Renape Nation-have not officially espoused gambling ambitions.

New Jersey "wrongfully and erroneously assumed that the [Lenni-Lenape] Nation's desire for continued state recognition is motivated by the intention to conduct casino gaming," according to the lawsuit, which calls the state's actions discriminatory and says federal recognition is necessary to set up a casino.

"While taking the position that it does not recognize the three New Jersey tribes, defendant has yet to articulate what exactly the tribes are, except to imply that they are something lesser and undefined," the complaint states. "Defendant's purported justifications for its position are pre-textual. On information and belief, the state is actually motivated by a racial-stereotype-driven and irrational fear that any American Indian tribe, if recognized as such, will seek to conduct gaming in competition with New Jersey's politically powerful non-Indian gaming interests."

The tribe alleges state officials have tried to rescind the official recognition, saying that the state has only "acknowledged" the three tribes, not officially recognized them, and that no due process ever existed to even grant such recognition. Only federal government can authorize official recognitions, New Jersey's acting Attorney General John Hoffman has argued.

Tribes with state recognition reap certain rewards. For instance, they can sell arts and crafts as "Indian made," can access hundreds of thousands of dollars in student scholarships, tap into federal healthcare grants, and can receive favored status when applying as contractors.

The lawsuit claims political pressures have played a part in the attempts to rescind recognition. It alleges that Gov. Chris Christie's administration had been discussing the matter with the tribe, but the Bridgegate scandal and Christie's run for the presidency scuttled the talks.

A spokesman for the attorney general could not be reached for comment.

The Lenni-Lenape tribe claims to date back more than 12,000 years and, like many Native American tribes, its history is fraught with blood and betrayal. The tribe was granted a reservation in Burlington County in 1758, but the reservation was disbanded in the early 1800s and New Jersey began forcibly expelling the tribe west and then into Canada. Most of the tribe's current membership lives in New Jersey.

The tribe sued the state for due process and equal protection violations. It is represented by Frank Corrado of Barry, Corrado & Grassi in Wildwood, N.J.

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