FAIRFIELD TOWNSHIP — The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape people survived centuries of European persecution in South Jersey by hiding. They outwardly denied their heritage, but quietly intermarried and passed down their traditions in secret.

On a recent evening, direct descendents of the state’s true first settlers gathered at the tribe’s unmarked cultural center off Westcott Station Road. In the main room where the Tribal Council regularly meets, children made crafts while several councilmen talked about life as an American Indian in modern New Jersey.

A lot has changed since their ancestors were forced from their wigwams, but in some ways they are still oppressed.

For the past decade, they said the state has not fully recognized the three tribes that remain active here, denying them rights to federal benefits and the ability to market their crafts as “Indian made.”

“Right now, they’re on the wrong side of history — again,” said the Rev. John Norwood, of Moorestown, a member of the Tribal Council.

A bill pending in the Legislature would resolve this issue, but concerns that such recognition could also lead to Indian-owned casinos — fears Norwood called “erroneous” and “racist” — have stalled its passage.

“The question I have is, could state recognition lead to federal recognition, which in turn could lead to Indian gaming somewhere in New Jersey,” said Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, chair of the committee where the bill has sat since being passed by the Assembly in February.

However, legal experts said state recognition makes no difference in the extensive and expensive process toward getting federal recognition.

“I think that most of the concerns are not valid,” said Jack Trope, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, and a former assistant counsel for Govs. Brendan Byrne and Thomas Kean. “I don’t see where it gets them even an inch closer to (opening casinos).”

Norwood said the tribe’s own constitution forbids it from pursuing gaming of any kind. Whelan said he needs more assurance than that, though, since tribal leadership changes over time.

Even so, Norwood said it is a strange position to be protecting casino profits while denying a race of people access to scholarships and economic assistance.

“What other race deals with that?” he said.

There are about 29,000 people in New Jersey who identified themselves as American Indian or Alaska Natives in the 2010 census. About 5,650 of them are in the census-designated tribal area of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape.

Lewis Pierce Jr., a tribal co-chairman, said the tribe officially counts about 3,000 members nationwide, all of whom need to have at least a quarter of their bloodline traced back to a few original families.

Self-described American Indians are spread throughout South Jersey. According to the census, there are 406 American Indians living in Vineland, 350 in Bridgeton, 242 in Atlantic City and 168 in Pleasantville. Pierce Jr. said those numbers are likely higher, since generations of his people have withheld their ethnicity in fear of oppression.

The Ramapough Lenape Indians on the border of New York state and New Jersey and the Powhatan Renape Indians of Burlington County are the two other active tribes that have been recognized in state resolutions since the 1980s.

In the mid-1990s, the state also created the Commission on American Indian Affairs, made up members from the three main tribes.

However, since at least 2001, the recognition of the state’s native tribes has been officially questioned.

In a letter Norwood provided from that time, the state Division of Gaming Enforcement told the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, a federal agency, that the state has no recognized tribes and has no mechanism for doing so, saying past resolutions “designating” the tribes was not official, legal recognition.

A bill introduced in 2002 to resolve this discrepancy was never passed by the Senate, where former Sen. Bill Gormley, R-Atlantic, opposed it for the same reasons Whelan said he does today.

In 2007, a report by the New Jersey Committee on Native American Community Affairs said “lingering discrimination, ignorance of state history and culture, and cynicism rather than shining celebration of the state’s tribal members” still exists. It outlined several ways to fix these issues, but few have been implemented.

The pending bill to re-establish formal recognition, sponsored in the Senate by Richard Codey, D-Essex, includes specific language outlining that the recognition is for limited purposes and does not provide any support for establishing gaming or sales of fuel and tobacco.

The bill states that recognition is for “establishing eligibility for federal education, job training, and housing benefits and federal protection for the sale of artwork,” as well as “ensuring that handicrafts made by tribal members may be sold as ‘Indian made.’”

Nevertheless, Whelan said he is seeking an opinion from the state Office of Legal Services explaining that the bill could in no way lead to federal recognition and the subsequent establishment of Indian gaming in the state.

So, American Indian artists such as Stephen Conaway, of Bridgeton, cannot say his fans made of beads and hawk feathers are authentically Indian, depriving him of potentially twice the profits he could see otherwise.

Urie Ridgeway, of Fairfield, said he fears he could be fined for selling a CD with music by performers from his tribe, since he cannot legally claim recognition from the state government.

And Paul Ridgway, of Fairfield, said his daughters could be deprived of scholarships, not to mention the pride of being recognized as among the state’s few remaining American Indians.

“We’re never going to be a huge political lobby with a lot of money,” Ridgway said. “The problem is, when you go to Trenton, it’s all about money.”

Contact Lee Procida:

609-457-8707