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Eviction of Powhatans ‘heartbreaking’

Tribal Council member: “We had the resources (to keep things going). But, you’ll notice, I said ‘had.’ Something should have been done sooner.

This is what’s left of the mock village at the reservation.

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.”

About Colleen P. Clark

I started my career in newspapers in 2004 with South Jersey Newspapers Co. and worked for The News and the Sunbeam for six years. I left the business briefly in 2010 to work in a governmental public affairs office, but after a brief stint and a bit of withdrawl, I realized that I belonged in news. I joined the team at Elauwit Media in May 2011 as a managing editor and my days are now back to being hectic as usual, just the way it should be.View all posts by Colleen P. Clark