Gurbir S. Grewal, attorney general of New Jersey, speaks at Seton Hall Law School/photo by Carmen Natale

New Jersey has agreed to pay $2.4 million to settle state and federal lawsuits over its failure to recognize the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation as an American Indian tribe.

The settlement resolves the plaintiffs’ claims that New Jersey provided information to the U.S. General Accounting Office calling into question the status of the 3,000-member nation as an official American Indian tribe. The state agreed under the settlement to notify relevant state and federal agencies of the tribe’s official status.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape say the state reversed its long-standing recognition of the tribe’s status out of a concern that the group might establish its own casino to compete with those in Atlantic City.

The parties agreed the state recognition acknowledged under the settlement does not provide the tribe with the rights to run a casino, and the tribe specifically disclaimed any interest in gaming rights, the state Attorney General’s Office said in an announcement of the settlement.

“As a result of this settlement, there is no more ambiguity regarding the tribe’s official status, and the tribe’s forward progress cannot be impeded by any state-regulated recognition issues. I’m heartened that, through good faith negotiation, we’ve been able to resolve this matter fairly and bring an end to years of legal dispute,” Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in a statement.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape alleged that the state’s action cost the tribe access to federal grants and scholarships, caused tribally owned businesses to lose previously obtained contracts, and kept it from selling traditional arts and crafts as made by American Indians.

The settlement was reached as a motion for summary judgment by the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape was pending in a suit filed by the tribe in U.S. District Court. In October 2016, U.S. District Judge Renee Bumb denied the state’s motion to dismiss that suit.

And in July 2017, the Appellate Division ruled that the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape is a recognized American Indian tribe. The ruling overturned a Mercer County Superior Court judge’s ruling that the tribe never received recognition since the state never passed a statute granting that status. That case went back to the trial court and was in discovery.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape asserted that New Jersey first recognized the tribe in 1982, and thereafter regularly reaffirmed its formal recognition for three decades.

But in 2012, the tribe learned that a staff member from the state Commission on American Indian Affairs, Rowena Madden, sent a letter to the General Accounting Office saying New Jersey had no state-recognized tribes. Madden did not consult with members of the commission before sending the letter, according to court papers.

When the tribe protested, the office of then-Gov. Chris Christie and the Attorney General’s Office asked for assurances that the tribe had no intention to operate a casino, according to court documents in the federal suit. Ultimately, Christie’s office told the tribe it would not resolve the matter, the suit claimed.

“The Christie administration refused to back down. The reason we exposed as their motivation was this irrational fear” that the tribe would open a casino, said Gregory Werkheiser of Cultural Heritage Partners in Washington, who represented the tribe.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape passed a tribal law forbidding its participation in operating casinos and slot machines, or sales of cigarettes, cigars, alcohol, pornography or substances banned by federal law, the group said in a federal court filing.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape are centered in Cumberland and Salem counties in Southern New Jersey and have lived in the area since at least the 19th century.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape is one of three recognized tribes in New Jersey. Werkheiser said the settlement would benefit the other two tribes, the Ramapough Mountain Indians and the Powhatan Renape Nation, which could be expected to claim state recognition as well.

Werkheiser represented the tribe along with Frank Corrado of Barry, Corrado, Grassi & Gillin-Schwartz in Wildwood.