Indian tribes fight for recognition in Pennsylvania

But some lawmakers fear state certification would open door to casinos

March 19, 2003|By Carrie Budoff | Carrie Budoff,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Robert Red Hawk Ruth knows who he is, offering as proof the events in his life that have defined him:

Manning his first fur trap line, a rite of passage for young American Indian men. Harvest ceremonies with long tables of corn on the cob, corn bread, corn meal. Attending tribal council meetings, even as a young child.

Ruth, 50, says he was born and raised a Lenape. So, he asks, how can the Pennsylvania state government deny formal recognition of his Lenape heritage?

For years, the Lenape Nation of Southeastern Pennsylvania and other American Indian groups have pushed for state certification, which would give tribes access to scholarships, government benefits, even a renewed sense of pride.

In Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other states, lawmakers are tiptoeing through a minefield of political, economic and social questions as they consider tribal recognition.

`Continuing a struggle'

"It is the continuation of a long story," said Ruth, chief of the Lenape Nation's 1,000 members. "We are still continuing a struggle."

Ruth did not buy into the whole recognition argument - at first. Advertising his Indian background went against everything his parents and grandparents taught him growing up in Blue Bell.

"Don't tell people who you are - for protection," they implored.

Not only that, Ruth cringed at the idea of asking the government to validate who he was.

"The state knows who we are," Ruth said. "Over the years, how many times have our people had to go to Harrisburg for a plaque dedication or a ceremony?"

Ruth soon resigned himself to recognition after opposing it when the tribal council decided about five years ago to pursue it.

"That is the criteria, I guess, in this day and age for being a Native American," said Ruth, who co-owns a metal recycling company.

The government deals with American Indians differently than other groups because they operated as independent entities when the Europeans arrived centuries ago. That created a history of dealing with tribes as separate governments, but those relationships hinge on formal recognition, said Melissa Tatum, codirector of the Native American Law Center at the University of Tulsa College of Law.

Pennsylvania is one of 13 states without any recognized tribes, and one of about a dozen without a commission or office dedicated to American Indian issues, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Lenapes' efforts consistently fail in Harrisburg, primarily because official state recognition could put a tribe on the path toward establishing a casino. Ruth, however, says his group is not interested in gambling, only recognition. Several other groups seeking recognition also oppose gambling.

American Indians are looking to the new administration in Harrisburg as a fresh beginning for their cause. Through his spokesman, Gov. Ed Rendell said he would consider supporting recognition if the bill prohibited casino gambling.

But with Rendell angling to legalize slot machines at racetracks, suspicions that American Indians want recognition as a way to also cash in could stall their efforts again.

The man who stands firmly in their way is State Rep. Paul I. Clymer, (R., Bucks), chairman of the committee that handles recognition issues. Lenape assurances aside, he fears it is a scheme to parlay state recognition into federal recognition, which tribes need to open casinos.

`Uncomfortable feelings'

"I just have very uncomfortable feelings that it will be abused," said Clymer, a gambling foe.

The fight for recognition is just as much about the intangible: A simple acknowledgment that the Lenape marked Pennsylvania far earlier than William Penn laid claim to it.

"We are asking the governor to recognize his indigenous people who are the first citizens," said Wayne Standingwolf Posten, secretary/treasurer of the Lenape Nation and deputy sheriff in Bucks County. "Pay attention, pay attention to us."

The incentive, however, does go beyond that.

Certified tribes could compete for federal housing, education and job training assistance. In North Carolina, smaller state-recognized tribes qualify for between $200,000 and $500,000 in government benefits, while the largest tribe of about 50,000 members collects into the millions, said Gregory Richardson, executive director of the state's Indian commission.

Recognition could give tribes access to scholarships and allow them to sell arts and crafts with the "Indian made" label, boosting their value.

Even one of the Lenape's longtime ambitions - a cultural center to preserve and teach its heritage - could be within reach, members say.

The gatekeeper is Clymer, a plain-spoken conservative who seems to earn praise even from the people he has frustrated with his principled stances. Over the years, he has evolved into a one-man obstacle to tribal recognition in Pennsylvania as the issue became so intricately enmeshed nationwide with gambling.

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