Eviction of Powhatans ‘heartbreaking’

A lot can happen in the 30 days between getting an eviction notice, packing up that last box of belongings and walking out the door. But just imagine if the content of those boxes included the story of your ancestors along with other important elements of your culture and identity.

For Obie Batchelor, it has been a heartbreaking, emotional ride, one that began with anger and bitterness, but is ending more with peace and understanding.

That is what the Powhatan Renape Nation Indian tribe has had to deal with over the last several weeks, since the day in mid-August when they were ordered by the state Department of Environmental Protection to leave the land they called their spiritual home for the past 28 years — the Rankokus Indian Reservation in Westampton.

“An Indian’s dealings with the government usually never works out for the Indians,” Batchelor, a member of the Tribal Council, wrote in an e-mail just after receiving the notice, emanating obvious frustration with the situation.

The problems date back to 2008 when the Powhatan’s original 25-year lease of the land expired. The DEP leased the 237-acre land to the tribe for free with the understanding that it would be used as a central gathering point for members, who span all across New Jersey, and as a cultural and spiritual center.

“Even though the ground belonged to the state, we were never bothered by DEP officials during Chief Roy Crazy Horse’s time and were allowed to practice our traditions, religion, dance and crafts as well as develop better relations with New Jersey government and non-native people,” Batchelor wrote.

The chief of the tribe died in 2004 at the age of 79, and it was soon after that, Batchelor said, that the state began to question the tribe’s activity and finances.

“Despite the fact that we held festivals twice a year and museum tours throughout the year, the DEP still claimed we had no movement going on at Rankokus,” he said. “But, we personally gave it our best and tried to meet their requirements, but the more that was done, the more they found wrong.”

What especially made Batchelor angry was sentiment he had read in news reports about the issue, claiming the Powhatan people had no right to the land because the tribe is not originally from New Jersey.

“But, truly, if that’s the case, I guess that all white people and non-native people who have settled here for hundreds of years should be kicked out of New Jersey, too,” he said. “Our people moved here before the Continental Army of the United States was even an army, before settlements became towns, and were taken in by the Lenape and other tribes in this area as our homes were desecrated by the European invasion. And still we remained a people in these lands. So, I’d say we have just as much right (to the land) if not more than some.”

However, as the 30 days dwindled down and tribal members worked to clear out their artifacts and exhibits, Batchelor came to the understanding that the reservation — which he referred to as a “decaying object” — was doomed with or without DEP interference.

­By the time he sat down for a face-to-face interview, the anger from his e-mail had dissipated. The tribe brought this upon itself, he said.

“There were people who wanted to hold opposition to the government,” said Batchelor, 45, of Pennsauken. “In reality, after serving on council for two years, I realized that it was not the state’s problem, but our problem.”

“A lot of people are angry,” Batchelor said. “But truthfully, and I’ll include myself, tribal council dropped the ball. That’s pretty much the bottom line.”

He explained that their former chief had left everything in line for them to keep the reservation going after his passing, but they just weren’t able to keep up the business aspect of it.

Chief Crazy Horse, who was a resident of Medford, had been a fervent leader with many beneficial connections. He taught Indian studies at Rowan University and lectured at universities such as Harvard and UPenn. Chief since 1972, he was a vocal advocate for Indian and civil rights. In 2000, Gov. Christie Whitman appointed him to a commission studying discrimination in state employment and contracting. He also served as the chairman of the state Commission of American Indian Affairs.

He wrote several books about Native American culture, as well as its near-eradication over the centuries, and was also known for his criticism of the inaccurate portrayals of both the stories of Christopher Columbus and Pocahontas, who was a Powhatan.

He was a powerful man who fought for what he believed in. According to his obituary, that was a trait he carried with him from early on in life. He lied about his age when he was a teenager in order to fight in the Army during World War II. He was 16.

During the years he presiding over the tribe, the nonprofit reservation provided social services for Native Americans; they converted an old barn on the property into the only Indian-owned and operated museum in the state; they cleared trails around the park; and they even had visits from the likes of Willie Nelson and Navajo “code talkers” from World War II.

It was said at the time of Chief Crazy Horse’s death that the reservation he left behind was his legacy.

“Have things gone wrong? Sure,” Batchelor said. “But you know what? It’s been eight years since he’s been dead and we haven’t been able to clean up our business. I don’t care if people get mad at me for that. It’s the fact.”

After the chief’s death, the seven-member Tribal Council continued to oversee the functions of the reservation and serve the 5,000 members of the tribe.

Though the major business downfall came after 2004, Batchelor said the true heyday of the reservation was back in the late 80s to mid-90s. It was a popular destination for class trips and for families looking for a good cultural, historical lesson for their children without having to travel far.

The twice-a-year American Indian Arts Festival, which began in the mid-80s, drew in a crowd of thousands. A mock village, multiple stages for performances, and animals including horses and buffalo added to the attraction.

Batchelor said when the tribe first came to Rankokus (Rancocas State Park) in 1983, some people in Westampton worried about what was going to be done with the land. However, it quickly became apparent that they were “naturalists of the earth.” They were just looking for a place to maintain their tribal customs while teaching others within their community to keep up the traditions. And of course, education to the surrounding community came along with it.

“We had the resources (to keep things going),” Batchelor said. “But, you’ll notice, I said ‘had.’ Something should have been done sooner. We all have to make decisions and we all have to live with those decisions. We didn’t make the right decisions.”

Calls to other members of Tribal Council for comment, including the Powhatan’s Executive Director Joanne Hawkins, were not returned.

Batchelor said public participation continued to drop, especially as the recession hit. The tribe thought turnout would increase because people would be looking for local things to do, but it didn’t turn out that way.

As less people came, revenue dropped, as did grants and support funds. They continued to hold their festivals up until 2010, but then it became too much. They were too far behind.

“A lot of that supported the things we did here as far as education and the festivals. Without money, you can’t do much,” Batchelor said. “It seemed every year we tried, but every year it seemed to get worse and worse and it never really corrected itself.”

The electric at the reservation had to be turned off last January. Tribal members wore construction hats with flashlights affixed to the top as they worked in recent weeks to get their exhibits out of the museum. They also had to wear gloves and face masks.

Once the electric was shut off, the buildings fell into disrepair. When the DEP discovered there were flooding issues in the museum and a growing mold issue, the building was officially condemned.

According to DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese, the issues go beyond that, but giving the 30-day notice was not something the department took lightly.

“The Powhatans were in violation of many of the lease provisions and the DEP and secretary of state’s office met with them over the last three years to try to sort these out,” he said.

According to Ragonese, they restricted public access to the park and posted “Private Property” signs on state land; failed to maintain insurance coverage; failed to maintain revenue records and expenditures; had building code violations (mostly due to construction or restoration work done without permits); had fire code violations; and there were environmental issues such as filling in wetlands, paving roads and removing trees.

But one issue dated back all the way to the beginning of the lease involving a stone house that sits up on a hill beside the Rancocas Creek. That building specifically was to be used as their Native American spiritual and cultural center, but instead, it was used for office space.

When the original lease ran out in 2008, the DEP began giving the tribe a month-to-month lease while they tried to resolve the issues.

“We did negotiate with the Powhatans and Burlington County to have the county assume management of most of the Powhatan’s land,” Ragonese said. “The Powhatans were allowed to remain on five acres, which included the building that is supposed to house the spiritual and cultural center.”

That agreement could only take effect if the tribe took care of the outstanding violations, but they were unable to do so.

“We tried our best,” Ragonese said. “We made a really concerted effort to try to accommodate them, but at this point, obviously they haven’t taken any of the steps needed to deal with their lease requirements or environmental rules, so they do have a requirement that they must leave the premises.”

As far as what will become of Rancocas State Park, Ragonese said it will remain a state park, but the majority of the land has been turned over to Burlington County for management.

There will be little reminder of what used to be there. The condemned buildings, weathered performance stages and empty horse stables will likely be torn down.

The Powhatan’s 30-day notice actually expired on Sept. 16. However, the tribe has been given an extension until Oct. 16 to finish getting personal property out of the museum, which includes multiple exhibits that interpret their own history as well as several other tribes. Batchelor said they must find climate-controlled storage for them and several artifacts, including arrowheads and other tools, or perhaps find a museum that will hold the pieces on loan.

“It’s one of those things that you wish could have had a better ending,” the DEP spokesman said.

Batchelor said it’s technically like closing a chapter.

“It’s sad,” he said. “Rankokus thrived at one time and now it’s not … It’s very heartbreaking and very difficult to deal with.”

However, he said that just as his parents and grandparents taught him Powhatan traditions, he will continue to help teach the younger members of the tribe.

“It’s a matter of rebounding,” he said.

He explained that his nieces and nephews currently look to him for spiritual guidance. They know who they are, he said, but they still fall short on some things.

The tribe will continue to meet at libraries throughout the region and at tribe members’ homes where properties are large enough for them to practice their rituals.

“If we’re going to do an eagle dance or something like that, we can do it there,” he said. “It’s pretty much to keep the practice going and to maintain the culture and education for the younger generations.”

They will also continue to go to other tribes’ festivals and pow wows, such as the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Pow Wow in Salem County and the Gathering of Nations in New Mexico, which is the largest of its kind in the country.

“We’ll always be the Powhatan people,” Batchelor said. “We’ll always be a tribe, but we won’t be here at Rankokus … As far as the ground at Rankokus, it’s just a place. It’s near and dear to our hearts, but it’s just ground.”

Batchelor concluded that despite a lot of back and forth between the state, and despite problems within the council itself, he doesn’t have anything bad to say about anyone.

“We’re human beings,” he said. “People are fallible. We make choices and we hope for the best, and it either works out or doesn’t, and that’s all there is.”