While Mahwah Township tries to prevent the local Native tribe from participating in their outdoor prayer ceremonies and the state government attempts to usurp their recognition, the Ramapough Lunaape tribal members refuse the denial of their constitutional rights.
At the commencement of every Fall, the Ramapough Lunaape Nation in northern New Jersey hold a powwow. One of its most significant traditional gatherings, the Ramapough’s powwow is filled with rituals honoring ancestors and preserving the culture of one of the oldest people known to inhabit land within and around the Ramapo Mountains.
Essential to powwow ceremonies are dancing, singing and drumming — customs that last throughout the day. While Ramapough celebrations have occurred for generations, it’s newest residents of the region — mostly white and affluent families living in the nearby Ramapo Hunt and Polo Club housing development in Mahwah Township — have expressed annoyance.
Citing that the Ramapough Lunaape public ceremonies cause noise disturbance, Ramapo Hunt and Polo Club residents pushed for local zoning laws to be enforced.
In December 2016, Mahwah Township issued a summons claiming that the Ramapoughs did not apply for permits to build teepees, platforms and other camp-like structures on the land. Complying, the Native nation sent in an application, but were denied.
“I think the town has a culture of manipulating zoning against tribal people,” says Dwaine Perry, Chief of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation.
Township authorities said that the teepees, traditional pop-up homes made from animal skin and wooden poles, violated floodplain and conservation zoning laws because they are collapsible structures. The tribe argued that the teepees were being used to conduct prayer ceremonies. Soon after, they began to construct a wooden platform. The town’s reply, another lawsuit summons was issued.
“The people of Mahwah are racist,” says Two Clouds, another Ramapough Nation member who is also involved with the campaign, #RamapoughStrong, a crusade to protect the Native member’s right to use their land and assemble for prayer and cultural activities.
Owl, another member of the Ramapough adds, “The town of Mahwah is trying to set a dictatorship on us.”
Gentrification: Ground Zero
The area in dispute is a 13-acre parcel of land owned by the Ramapough Lunaape called, Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Camp. The site sits adjacent to million-dollar homes of the Polo Club. According to Perry, the location is a “prayerful area” with a sacred prayer circle serving as a central location for the Ramapough Nation for a long time.
“We have rights by the US constitution and the state constitution to pray . . . and our prayer as Native people is protected under the Native American Freedom of Religion act,” states Two Clouds.
Also, according to Owl, former New Jersey Governor “Jon Corzine had [an] executive order . . . recognizing our religious rights.”
On October 1, 2008, Corzine signed Executive Order #122 agreed to recommendations made by the New Jersey Committee on Native American Community Affairs. One of the suggestions that Corzine accepted states the following:
. . . the State of New Jersey should: affirm its respect for and recognition of its three tribes; protect Native American open air worship sites and tribal burial grounds . . .
While the Ramapough were granted the freedom to practice their ceremonies, Mahwah has resorted to “employ self-help, i.e. vigilantes” to police the tribe’s activities, according to Perry.
Just around Thanksgiving last year, Superior Court Judge Roy F. McGeady declared that the Ramapough can use the land for religious purposes and tents can be set there; however, any violations of zoning laws results in monetary penalization. In turn, McGeady fined the Ramapoughs $13,000.
According to Perry, this is not the first time that the Ramapough have been confronted by the Polo Club. For him, the battle over the prayer site between his tribe and the town of Mahwah is emblematic of an ongoing antagonistic relationship.
“There is a historical attack from Mahwah against Native people … the zoning manipulation is due to the valuable property,” Chief Perry says.
Two Clouds alleges that the Polo Club has their eyes set on using the small parcel of land owned by the Ramapough for real estate developments.
“They want to take our land from us and forbid us from using anything over there in that vicinity,” says Two Clouds.
The area in dispute also serves as coveted real estate for the Pilgrim Pipeline, a project planning to construct a 170-mile oil pipeline extending from Albany, NY to Linden, NJ. As of now the project is on hiatus.
The name, Mahwah, derives from the Lenape language meaning, meeting place. However, the relationship between the tribe and the townspeople of Mahwah is anything, but smooth, and has been that way for quite some time.
For the Ramapough, the pipeline is not only a threat to their ancestral land, but also an area of environmental safety concerns.
“A spill in the Ramapough aquifer will destroy the drinking supply … a 55 gallon spill to the New York watershed will destroy the drinking supply of millions of people. That is a crime of humanity,” says Perry.
Toxic waste has already shown up in the areas that the Ramapough inhabit and fear of the Pipeline leaking will simply cause further pollution to the environment.
“What people don’t know is the Ramapough River is polluted which is detrimental to the people living there,” states Owl.
From the mid-twentieth century to 1980, Ford Motor Company had a plant in Mahwah. In a story by Al-Jazeera, the American automobile producer dumped carcinogenic and other toxic chemicals in nearby rivers and forested areas — including lands and waterways of the Ramapough. Decades later, the tribe reports overwhelming cases of cancer amongst its tribal members.
Keepers of the Pass
The State of New Jersey remains reluctant to act on the plight faced by the Ramapough Nation and the threats of more environmental damage.
This negligence has been punctuated by former Governor Chris Christie’s Administration’s 2012 decision to withdraw the state’s recognition of three Native tribes in New Jersey. The removal caused a loss in millions of dollars in business, jobs and contracts hiring Native people. The claims instigated the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation to sue for state recognition. Last week, the Nanticoke settled its six-year legal battle with an agreement that they will be recognized again as Native people and received monetary compensation.
For the Ramapough, their battles with Mahwah residents disrupts a sacred duty. “We are keepers of the pass, this is our historical duty to defend the mountains and waters of this land,” says Owl.
The Ramapough Lunaape are a sub-group with the indigenous Lenape people, whose historical population span from upstate New York down to Delaware and west towards Pennsylvania. Lenape tribes also reside in Oklahoma and Canada.
The Ramapough assert that they have served as custodians of the pathway cutting through the Ramapo Mountains, along with its rivers, valleys and other natural scenery for thousands of years. This route is the old passage carved through years of Native people and settlers crossing through northeast New Jersey and southeast New York.
Their title as, “Keepers of the Pass,” is so ingrained to their identity and responsibility in this world that it is part of the tribe’s official emblem, one in which also has a turtle. The symbol of the turtle in Native cosmology, represents the world often known as “turtle island,” explains Eileen De Freece, a Ramapough Lunaape member and English professor at Essex Community College in Newark, New Jersey.
De Freece, gained her membership through her father. She recalls while growing up in Newark, Native people often had to hide their identity due to the Indian Removal Act, a nineteenth century law granting European settlers to seize indigenous land. Her parent lived in secrecy due to the violent and hostile racism from European immigrants who settled in the area. Powwows allow De Freece to “participate in the culture of those before [her] … and those whose footpaths and trade routes created much of the highways and major streets throughout New Jersey.”
Regardless of the antagonistic relationship between Mahwah residents and tribal members, the Ramapough still hold ceremonies. At the same time, the fines from zoning law violations continue, totaling to $480,000. In May 2018, the Native people filed a lawsuit against the township saying that their first and 14th Amendment rights have been violated by the township’s local authorities and residents.
“There seems to be a movement to destroy tribal culture,” says Chief Perry who recently had criminal charges dismissed against for allegations that he, along with Owl, vandalized the Ramapo Hunt and Polo Club.
In spite of all the external obstacles, the Ramapough Lunaape Nation has made it more than clear that they are here to stay and will not be intimidated by external threats.