The Ramapough Lenape make a stand

June 7, 2017

Jamie Bemis reports on how a struggle by a tribe in New Jersey to stop a destructive oil pipeline is confronting government injustice from the local to the federal level.

WHAT DOES it mean to be a Native in a country that doesn't acknowledge your existence? This is an old question for the Ramapough Lenape Nation, which has faced opposition and harassment since the arrival of the first European settlers.

But plans for a destructive new oil pipeline that would threaten sacred Ramapough Lenape sites, as well as the namesake Ramapo River, have made their struggle for existence more urgent--and galvanized a resurgence in tribal life and Native activism.

Located in northern New Jersey, the Lenape tribe has called the mid-Atlantic region home for 10,000 years--making it among the earliest known residents of North America. Originally hunter-gatherers, the Lenape eventually transitioned to an agricultural lifestyle and began growing corn, squash and beans, trading their nomadic lifestyle for fixed settlements in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

When European settlers arrived in the 16th century, many of the Lenape moved west, but the Ramapough held fast. For almost 500 years, they have preserved their language and culture, despite oppression, discrimination and blatant racism from their white neighbors.

Ramapough and solidarity activists rally against the Pilgrim Pipeline in northern New Jersey
Ramapough and solidarity activists rally against the Pilgrim Pipeline in northern New Jersey

A low point came in 1993 when none other than Donald Trump led a successful smear campaign to deny the tribe federal status--because Trump feared they might build a casino to compete with his own. "I think I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations," Trump blustered on the Don Imus radio show.

IN RECENT years, the Ramapough Lenape have also struggled with internal divisions and demoralization. Fewer than 3,000 remain in the area. But a recent turn in events has rekindled a fighting spirit and commitment to persevere among many tribe members.

Last year, Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings proposed an oil pipeline that would flow directly through Ramapough Lenape land, carrying 200,000 barrels of crude shale oil per day. Due to its proximity to major urban areas along the East Coast, a pipeline spill could threaten the water supply of an estimated 20 million individuals--to say nothing of the environmental degradation it would incur.

Like many Indigenous people, the Ramapough see the Earth as the sacred provider of life and sustenance, and they consider it their duty to protect and nurture the Earth, as it nurtures us. The proposed pipeline has led to a resurgence in activism and tribal life.

These days, the tribe's Sweetwater Prayer Camp, located on four acres of the tribe's 14-acre property along the Ramapo River, bustles with water ceremonies, prayer ceremonies and other tribal activities.

As other indigenous groups and their allies have learned about the Ramapough's pipeline struggle, the prayer camp has also become a crossroads of sorts, hosting visitors from all over the world who stop by to pay their respects, learn about the struggle, and trade knowledge, tactics and ideas.

Not everyone is happy about the Ramapough's recent resurgence. A long history of animosity exists between the Ramapough and the white residents of Mahwah, many of whom can trace their ancestry back to early European settlers. This trend has continued with the tribe's contemporary struggles with local residents and Mahwah authorities.

Neighbors have repeatedly called the cops with petty complaints about members of the tribe, and the town issued numerous violations and fines against the tribe for things like gathering for religious assembly and spreading bark mulch on the land to aid against flooding. Town officials claim that the tribe is violating zoning codes and have used this as the basis for citing repeated infractions.

Most recently, one of the tribe's allies was arrested and accused of vandalism. Accounts vary as to the circumstances of the arrest. Mahwah authorities claim that the accused individual spray-painted a sign, while the tribe maintains that the individual was out of town on the night the vandalism occurred, and that he was framed.

Given recent revelations documented by the Intercept that Native protesters fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock were infiltrated, monitored and harassed by security forces working in collusion with local police, the accusations against the Ramapough and their supporters should be seen as dubious at best.

Beyond this specific case, the tribe also faces hundreds of dollars in legal fines over zoning violations cited by town authorities to condemn tribal activities. It now feels like the tribe is being accosted on all fronts--with their existence threatened by a destructive oil pipeline, legal fines, jail time, and ongoing harassment and intimidation from residents and authorities alike.

INSTEAD OF dissuading the Ramapough from activism, these injustices have strengthened their resolve and rekindled an interest in tribal heritage, particularly among the younger generation.

Last week, members of the tribe hosted an organizing meeting for Ramapough and their allies to discuss recent developments and to plan for next steps. Almost 30 people attended, representing a broad spectrum of affiliations--including local Mahwah residents, Black Lives Matter, Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), Earth and Water Watch, faith groups and other Indigenous groups.

Over the course of two hours, plans were laid out to prepare for the ongoing legal struggles, as well as to expand the support base for the Ramapough's right to use their land and to preserve it from harm.

Ramapough activists stressed their desire to welcome visitors, neighbors, allies and anyone interested in their cause to visit the land, join in ceremonies and events, and learn about the tribe's history and the current struggle. In the coming weeks and months, there will be no shortage of opportunities to do so.

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, it's worth reflecting on the Bolshevik Party's commitment to the self-determination for all nations. These revolutionaries recognized that Russian imperialism under the Tsar kept all oppressed people in the empire divided against one another, and they advocated for the right of formerly colonized nations to chart their own path forward.

Socialists today should join the Ramapough Lenape in their struggle for self-determination, and to fight the pipeline companies that are the latest in a long history of villains who are willing to resort to lies and violence in order to steal Native land.

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