New Jersey to reduce Powhatan land due financial distress

Kierstin Booker, 17, of Mt. Laurel and a member of the Powhatan Renape Nation, seen at the Rankokus Indian Reservation in Westampton, Burlington County. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff)

THE SADNESS in Obie Batchelor's heart is older than America itself, he said, a bittersweet reminder of all American Indians displaced or slowly stripped of their culture over the centuries.

But in 2010, there's no army marching toward the Rankokus Indian Reservation in Burlington County to force the Powhatan Renape Nation off the land there. These days, change comes in the form of code violations, the tribe's own fiscal and personal problems, and a disconnect between a businesslike state government and what Batchelor calls the "Native mind."

"Things haven't changed for us," Batchelor, a member of the Powhatans' tribal council, said recently. "It's been the same for Native Americans throughout the country, since the beginning."

New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection leases land, rent-free, to the Powhatan Renape Nation in Rancocas State Park. The Powhatans say it's 280 acres, while the DEP says it's 237.

Regardless, the DEP is altering the lease, significantly downsizing the nonprofit Rankokus Reservation because the Powhatans, they claim, are in a state of "financial and organizational distress."

The Powhatan Renape Nation would be left with a 5-acre parcel there that includes its museum and a mock village but would lose the large open fields used to host arts festivals twice yearly. Batchelor said the state said that it would also remove any wild animals the nation houses there and would demolish various structures built on the land over the decades, including a house on the banks of Rancocas Creek.

"They're just not in a position to maintain this lease," said Marci Green, administrator at the DEP's Office of Leasing, citing the numerous code violations on the property that need pricey fixes. "This is in everybody's best interest."

The state plans to restore the land as parkland.

Batchelor, during an interview at the reservation one recent summer afternoon, said fellow tribal council members wouldn't permit him to discuss specifics about their financial and organizational matters. He acknowledged them, though, and said that issues first came to light after their charismatic and outspoken leader, Chief Roy Crazy Horse, died in 2004.

"Things just kind of went downhill after that," said Batchelor, 44, of Pennsauken. "Businesswise, we had a lot of things we had to straighten out and when the recession came it really pushed things to the bottom."

The Powhatans have until the end of October, Batchelor said, to come up with the $2,000 to $3,000 needed to install a fire-suppression system in the museum, which has been closed to the public for months now. If that doesn't happen, the Powhatans could lose the 5-acre plot, too, he said.

"This could be the end of an era," he said, standing near the museum's entrance. "This could all be gone."

Green said the Powhatans could still hold their festivals on the land if they got a permit. The DEP has already extended deadlines, she added, and has been willing to work with the Powhatans to fix the two pages of violations found on the property.

"We understand their desire for this land and their connection to it. We're not trying to kick them out," she said.

Batchelor and Kierstin Booker, a young but dedicated Powhatan, have formed online petitions and created Facebook pages to revive public interest in the tribe in desperate times. A senior at Lenape Regional High School, Booker says that few of her fellow students know anything about American Indian culture.

"Our school is named after a Native American tribe but they don't teach about us at all," Booker, 17, said at the Powhatan reservation.

The Powhatans are officially recognized as a American Indian tribe by the state and first settled into South Jersey from Virginia in the late 19th century in sections of Pennsauken.

They have no ancestral claim to the parcel of land in Burlington County, but Batchelor said that it now has a spiritual meaning the state can't understand.

"It is our home," he said.

In 1982, Chief Crazy Horse negotiated a 25-year lease with the state for the land in Rancocas State Park to offer social services to the Powhatan people and promote American Indian culture in the area.

The Powhatans have had a year-to-year lease since the original expired in 2008 and Batchelor said that the DEP never bothered with the reservation until after Chief Crazy Horse died.

"We've taken care of this place by ourselves for almost 30 years now," he said.

When they did come in, the DEP found that Chief Crazy Horse had treated the land as if it were private property - paving roads, building barns and houses, and felling trees, all without state permission or permits.

Green said that the acres the DEP leased to the Powhatan Renape Nation were considered "a spiritual and cultural center," not an autonomous reservation or private land. Green and officials in Westampton said that the tribe also discouraged the public from entering the public property for years by erecting gates and posting signs.

"We just always wanted more public access, a way to get back there," said Donna Ryan, the township administrator. "They never threw anyone off, but going back there was frowned upon."

Visitors were always welcome to walk trails, attend festivals, and visit the museum, Batchelor said, but littering, defecating dogs, and other signs of disrespect were not tolerated.

There were also "private and sacred" ceremonies held there that were off-limits.

"Religious practices are private, they're part of our spirituality," he said.

As the sun slowly sank into the west on a recent evening, Batchelor walked to a pen where a lone, 1,600-pound buffalo rested on the dusty earth, flicking his mighty head at the occasional fly. Crickets were playing their late-summer symphonies in the surrounding fields and wind whipped the treetops above the beast. Off in the distance, tractor-trailers belched and whistled up the New Jersey Turnpike.

Buffalo, like the Powhatans, weren't native to New Jersey, but this one - named Joe - was born on the Rankokus Reservation 15 years ago and Batchelor and his family have helped care for him since. Two of the Powhatans' buffalo died while undergoing state-ordered testing, he said, and Joe will soon be moved to Great Adventure's Wild Safari in Ocean County.

The state considers Joe to be a pet, an exotic animal that needs permits. For Batchelor, the buffalo, just like the land, means a little more.

"It breaks my heart to even see him," he said.