Indian tribes fight for recognition in Pennsylvania

PHILADELPHIA — 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.

Clymer chairs the House state government committee, and decides whether a bill is held captive or pushed to the House floor for a vote. For about a decade, Clymer always chose the former - more than happy to call hearings, but never willing to go beyond that.

Any potential benefits to American Indians are a "secondary" consideration to the casino threat, Clymer said.


Clymer references reports of non-Indian investors helping tribes win federal recognition and build casinos, only to have the investors walk away with most of the cash and the tribes remain largely destitute.

Posten said his group has rebuffed investors in the past.

To assuage Clymer's fears, the Lenape proposed a compact stating they would never gamble. Clymer's staff is researching whether it would be binding.

Even so, Clymer asked, what about other groups? There are more than 18,000 American Indians living in Pennsylvania, according to the 2000 census. His mind is fresh with examples of Indians whose antigambling rhetoric disappeared when a casino opportunity came along.

"If you have people that come knocking on your doors - multimillionaires who are going to offer you amazing profits - that changes the whole situation dramatically," Clymer said.

Any state-recognized tribe would still need federal certification, a process that can stretch on for years and cost millions of dollars. Recognition at the state level is not among the seven criteria the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs considers when deciding what tribes should be federally certified, said Nedra Darling, an agency spokeswoman. But some believe state recognition would influence the federal process.


The Lenape moved for federal recognition in 2000, filing a letter of intent with the agency.

Clymer's aversion to gambling dates to the early 1980s, when a Democratic colleague enlisted him to fight a proposal to legalize slot machines for Pocono resorts. What he concluded after reading mounds of reports and absorbing hours of testimony was this: Gambling tears up families, drives people broke, encourages crime, and the state should have no role in promoting any of it.

'Social disasters'

"Those social disasters are far greater than what the benefits would be to the few Native Americans," Clymer said.

Caught in the crosshairs of the nationwide backlash to Indian gaming is tribal recognition.

Proponents of recognition see it as an empowerment tool and disavow the resistance they say hints of discrimination. The opponents say they must protect the public interest against groups that may not even be true tribes.


"We have this history with the Lenape, and that should impel us to at least consider their claims if we consider ourselves a state that embraces diversity," said Paul C. Rosier, a history professor at Villanova University who specializes in Indian issues. In New Jersey, state officials determined last year that the recognition its three tribes enjoyed for more than 20 years was just an informal courtesy. The designation carries no legal weight, said Michael Kinney, a spokesman for the New Jersey department of state. Tribes in New Jersey have begun fighting for a more formal recognition.

Members of the Lenape Nation say they can prove their existence as a continuous group for more than two centuries.

"Members of our tribe have documentation," Posten said.

Others are doubtful. Robert Venables, a senior lecturer in Cornell University's American Indian program, said any group that began its push for recognition in recent years should raise suspicions.

"The name of the game is gambling and people are coming out of the woodwork who were never Indians before," Venables said.

Suspicions are heightened now that Pennsylvania, faced with a deficit, wants to expand gambling to pad state coffers. Indian gaming is surfacing in those discussions, even though Rendell opposes increased gambling beyond race-track slots.


Lobbyist Stephen Wojdaksaid he is representing developers with ties to American Indians. But Wojdak, who would not name the Indian group, said he was unaware of the state recognition bills and did not know whether they needed federal recognition.

State Rep. Louise Williams Bishop, a Philadelphia Democrat, introduced a bill last month that would set up a commission to recognize American Indians. State Rep. Dante Santoni, Jr., a Berks County Democrat, said he also plans to propose a bill.

Clymer said he would schedule a public hearing.

No matter the outcome in Harrisburg this year, the Lenape promise to return again.