Indian tribe files federal lawsuit over Pa. land

Delaware Nation seeks 315-acre parcel in effort to open casino elsewhere

February 13, 2004|By John L. Micek and John M.R. Bull | John L. Micek and John M.R. Bull,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- An American Indian tribe has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to reclaim ancestral lands in the Lehigh Valley so it can open a casino elsewhere in the state.

The Delaware Nation of Anadarko, Okla., claims a 315-acre parcel in Forks Township that is now home to 25 private residences and the maker of Crayola crayons.

The tribe's lawyers insisted they're not trying to force anyone off their land. Rather, they want to make sure their own rights are protected so they can pursue gambling in the state.

"Nobody in the Delaware Nation has any desire to dispossess anyone of their land," tribal lawyer Stephen A. Cozen of Philadelphia said. The tribe's court filing, however, demands that all homes and businesses on the parcel be vacated immediately.

The lawsuit further demands that all 315 acres be turned into an Indian reservation.

State Sen. Lisa Boscola, a Northampton Democrat, advised constituents not to react rashly to the tribe's claim, which she and other critics describe as a bid for leverage over the state so the tribe can negotiate for land elsewhere.

People in Forks will not lose their homes, she said, and do not need to hire a lawyer. "This is [merely] a negotiating tactic to get a casino," she said.

State Rep. Richard Grucela, a Northampton Democrat whose district also includes the disputed land, agreed.

"My guess is that they'll put a casino in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia -- not in Forks," he said. "This is a tactic to get a casino somewhere else. They obviously have to file this first shot to make it look like they're serious."

A bill moving through the state Capitol would allow slot machines at racetracks and several nontrack locations. The tribe says it wants to be part of any legislative solution and, if it isn't, it has the land claim to fall back on.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, names as defendants the state, Gov. Edward G. Rendell, county officials in Northampton and Bucks counties, the Forks Township Board of Supervisors, Binney & Smith Inc. and two dozen residential and commercial property owners. The land once was part of Bucks County.

If the tribe's federal suit is successful, state officials will have to negotiate with its members to set aside land where they can open a casino. However, the tribe hinted that if lawmakers approve slots this year, it might back off on the court action.

Rendell has said he doesn't believe the Delaware's land claim is legitimate and he doesn't support Indian gambling in the state.

"We're evaluating the filing and we'll respond in due course," administration spokeswoman Kate Philips said.

The 50-plus-page lawsuit offers a densely packed history of Colonial and pre-Colonial Pennsylvania.

At the heart of the case is the Delawares' contention that their ancestors never surrendered claim to the land and that it was taken from them illegally. Specifically, the suit claims that the founder of Allentown, William Allen, had no right to sell the 315 acres that once belonged to a Delaware chief named Moses Tundy Tatamy.

A deed shows Allen sold the land to Melchoir Stretcher in 1802, just after Tatamy died.

There is no historical proof that Allen had the authority to sell the property, the suit claims. And there is no evidence that the federal government agreed to the sale of Indian property, as was required under a 1799 law.

"The real issue is the chain of title," said Stephen Dow Beckham, a history professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., who was retained by the tribe to research the land claim. "There was a [deed] issued in 1738. It was reaffirmed in 1742. And the presence of Tatamy and his family residing there is well documented. At stake is whether there is a clear title."

Road signs in the area -- there is a Tatamy Lane on the parcel -- point to the fact the chief was associated with the region, he added.

"This is a very substantial case," Beckham said. "It will be very interesting for the court to examine it."

Charlie Naselsky, another lawyer working on the case, said he checked land records in Bucks and Northampton counties for evidence of a land transfer by Chief Tatamy and his heirs, and was unable to find one.

Tribal leaders from the 1,200-member Delaware Nation and the 10,000-member Delaware Tribe of Bartlesville, Okla., held a Harrisburg Capitol news conference last spring announcing their plans to lay claim to their ancestral lands.

At the time, the two tribes said they hoped to reach an agreement with the Rendell administration that would allow them to conduct gambling in some other part of the state without trying to force Forks homeowners off their land.

But after the administration balked at the offer and efforts to legalize slot machines collapsed late last year, the tribe's lawyers said they had no choice but to file suit.

"It is the tribe's clear intent to operate in Pennsylvania, whether or not the state passes a slots bill," said Luis Figueredo, a Miami attorney who is one of the principal investors in the group that's backing the tribe's gaming effort. "The tribe has waited six months."

Figueredo said the larger Delaware Tribe did not join the suit because it's working on a federal application to open a casino that allows what's known as Class II gaming, such as bingo and poker, where players play against each other and not the house. It's likely that the Delaware Tribe will join the lawsuit later, Figueredo added.

An official in Bucks County dismissed the suit, calling it a "frivolous attempt" to draw the county into the dispute. "I'll try to take it seriously, but it will be difficult," county Commissioner Chairman Charles H. Martin said. "I don't think we'll be losing sleep over it."

John L. Micek and John M.R. Bull are reporters for the Morning Call, a Tribune Publishing newspaper in Allentown, Pa.

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