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SJ Native Americans Renew Fight For State Recognition

By David Madden and Cleve Bryan

BRIDGETON, NJ (CBS) -- A tribe of Native Americans based in Cumberland County has gone to federal court in an effort to keep its official recognition by the state of New Jersey.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, along with two other tribes, has enjoyed state recognition for more than three decades. But the suit contends the Christie Administration has, quietly, turned the tables in a move to placate the casino industry.

Attorney Greg Werkheiser insists the tribes don't want casinos. But state recognition equals money. He says without it, "they will no longer have the ability to label the arts and crafts they make as "Indian made."

The tribe could also lose access to federal programs, grants and scholarships. Bottom line, Werkheiser insists, this is a civil rights issue. "We don't ask most folks of different racial identities in the United States to prove who they are," he says, "but we still ask that of Native Americans."

Werkheiser, who heads up the Washington-based Cultural Heritage Partners law firm, hopes an agreement can be worked out with the state before it gets to court.

Lenape Chief Mark Gould, a Bridgeton resident who is an expert drum and rattle maker, says losing state recognition not only creates distrust, it's a heavy financial burden for some of his people.

"This art is worth a lot to us, but to the government without the stamp saying this is native made, a child could have made it and it has the same significance," says Gould.

A spokesperson from the New Jersey Attorney General's Office says they don't comment on pending lawsuits.


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