CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey has moved to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a Native American tribe that claims the state gave it official recognition decades ago but then rescinded it.
The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation sued in federal court in July.
The tribe, based in Bridgeton in southern New Jersey's Cumberland County, traces its history in the area back 12,000 years and says it now has 3,000 members, the majority of them living in the state.
Its lawsuit claims that the state Legislature passed a resolution recognizing the tribe in the 1980s but that a state staffer emailed the federal government's General Accounting Office several years ago saying New Jersey had no recognized tribes.
An attorney for the tribe has said some state officials became nervous more than a decade ago about the possibility of recognized tribes trying to develop casinos. The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape have no interest in doing that, the attorney said.
The tribe says not having state recognition affects its ability to sell crafts including beadwork, walking sticks, drums, headdresses, regalia and pottery as "Indian made," potentially costing it hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
In a court filing this week, the state argued that the Legislature's action didn't amount to official recognition because Congress has the sole authority to recognize tribes.
The Legislature's action and other statutes that mention the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape by name "reflect a designation that the Nation and certain other purported American Indian tribes exist in New Jersey," the state's brief argues. "These actions, however, cannot be viewed as a formal recognition of the status of these tribes as independent and sovereign political communities with defined territory."
The state also argued that the tribe's lawsuit fails to demonstrate a due process violation under the 14th Amendment because the right to be recognized by the state "doesn't fall within the limited list of fundamental rights and liberties that are deeply rooted in this country's history."
The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape claim they could lose $600,000 in grants, tribal jobs and scholarships that are tied to its designation as a recognized tribe.
A judge is expected to rule on the state's motion by early December.