By Anya TikkaMILFORD — This isn't the first time the Sand Hill Band has sued over the loss of their tribal lands. So what’s different this time?
Pike County resident Ron Yonaguska Holloway, a direct descendent the Lenape Indians and chief of the Sand Hill Band, said the tort case recently filed in International Court in Washington, D.C.. is the result of years of working with attorneys, when the Band learned "what we can and cannot do."
The suit aims to “resolve issues of environmental racism, genocide and slavery against the tribal and individual rights of Plaintiff on Plaintiff’s historical lands.”
Holloway said Lenapehoking, the lands historically inhabited by the Lenape — called the Delawares by the European settlers who came later — included all of present-day New Jersey, extending to about 70 miles west of the Delaware River to Pennsylvania, including Pike County; north to Binghamton, N.Y.; and east to the Hudson River. The Lenape nation is one of the First Contact Nations along the Eastern Seaboard never compensated for the lands they lost, said Holloway.
"The complaint is stating that these lands are still ours," Holloway said. "From our perspective, it was never bought. They have no original deed of sale. It was just taken the same way other countries annex smaller countries.
“It doesn’t matter how long ago it was, it’s still ours. We sided with the original states, with Washington. They won, and then they took our land.”
By contrast, he said, the Iroquois who fought with the British still have their lands.
Holloway said the Band possesses all of the original agreements between United States and the tribe.
"Because New Jersey was part of the U.S., and we had a treaty with the U.S.," he said. "It’s valid."
“They don’t have protection like the U.S. government or state has," said Holloway. "They are businesses.”
The old lawsuit gave the tribe better insight in how best to represent themselves.
“After the last case, we realized we needed to form a trust so the tribe could have standing in all courts," Holloway said. "Courts view trusts as a person. This is an Alien Tort Claim. It has never been done before by the natives.”
Also new, and relevant to the tribe's case, is the new confederation Federation of Aboriginal Nations of America (FANA), recently formed by several tribes along the Eastern Seaboard. Its members promise mutual support and aid to other Native Americans suing for restitution.
Four other member tribes filed a suit identical to that of the Sand Hill Band — in the same court, and at the same time. If they win their case, more tribes will be looking to join, Holloway said.
Holloway said the Sand Hill Band is not registered under the Bureau of Indian Affairs because it means giving up self-rule.
“We have common law recognition of the tribe," he said. "Forty-five thousand natives still live in New Jersey, but the state doesn’t recognize them.”
Holloway said a tremendous amount of information became available during the Sand Hill Band's effort to stop hydrofracking, the controversial deep-drilling method for extracting natural gas from shale. Members met with the Delaware Riverkeeper, Maya van Rossum, and filmmaker Josh Fox, the Milanville native famous for his anti-fracking "Gasland" documentaries.
“The biggest realization was that not all the federal courts are the same,” Holloway said.
The Federal Court of New Jersey is a State Federal court, he explained. Then there’s the Federal Court in Washington, D.C., the only court with the jurisdiction needed to rule in cases involving nations. Inside that court is an international court, he said.
"To hear sovereign nations, like the Indian nations, you have to go to Washington, to this court."
Holloway believes this time will be different.
“I am so confident I would say we’ve already won," he said. "We’ve got the right court this time, District of Columbia, where they can rule without interference. It’s a sovereign city. D.C. is exempt from the rest of the country. If the court says no, the appeal goes to Supreme Court.
“Instead of subjecting ourselves to state laws, we’re going to appeal to international laws and treaties that U.S. has signed. This has never been done before. This is the first time ever that natives have been able to do this in US.”
The lawsuit lists every treaty the U.S. has signed.
The tribe is asking for huge back payments that will be up to the court to decide.
"The trend in judicial ethics is in our favor," Holloway said. "People are tired of being mistreated, and demand restitution.”
He said the states and counties will have to sit down and talk.
"We don’t have any desire to displace anybody in a home or bankrupt an organization or state or otherwise," he said. "But they have to talk. Short of a court gag order regarding transparency, or the federal government stepping in, we’re going to bring this to an end. We’d be interested in a hearing. But we’re not going away. We have other tribes in queue who are going to step up. This is a national issue: Navajo, Apache — you can’t get away from it morally or karmically. What is the karma of killing of millions of people?
“We’ve been stonewalled everywhere, we’ve finally found somebody who will see to it that they will sit and talk. We’re looking for an amicable solution that takes everyone and everything into account.”
But it's not just about money, he said.
“In our view, money is an abstract thing," he said. "Let’s say we want to house 2,000 people. Just give us the materials. It’s negotiable. Everything has an abstract value. We need land. State and Federal Parks — that would work for us, and nobody gets displaced. Everybody who was born in this country is a native, but not aboriginal.
“We want to be better than what was done to us. We have nothing to lose but everything to gain. We want sovereign land, exempt from the state but still inside the U.S., cooperating, but without interference from state or county.”