This has nothing to do with justice

November 13, 2017

"Our only goal is to make sure that zoning codes are followed." This demand, made by the mayor of the township of Mahwah, forms the basis for a court case against the Ramapough Lenape Nation, which carries a possible $50,000-$60,000 in fines and potential jail time of up to 10 years.

The township, under pressure from a gated community known as the Polo Club, is seeking an injunction against the Ramapough Lenape Nation over alleged land use violations, claiming the tribe does not have the right to assemble for prayer or cultural activities on its own land. Specifically, the violations are for erecting teepees, pop-up tents and other structures in a floodplain last year, on the basis that these are "permanent structures." The Ramapough put up teepees last year as a political statement in solidarity with Standing Rock. Since then, Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Site has been a gathering space for prayer, solidarity and environmental justice organizing against the Pilgrim Pipeline.

After four days in court and a site visit, a judge is scheduled to make his final decision by November 17. Ramapough member Owl spoke to Laura Peñaranda about the meaning and significance of this court case and what it indicates about elected officials using the legal system to criminalize Indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice organizing.

DURING THE last court date, we heard the judge say that he needed a site visit to collect further information before reaching a final decision. Could you catch us up on the latest development of the court case?

THE CASE'S latest development occurred last November 3, when the judge came to our ceremonial prayer grounds, the Splitrock Sweetwater Prayer Site, for a site visit. It's highly unusual that a judge or a jury will visit a site, but it's not unheard of. As we were in the jurisdiction of the Mahwah Municipal Court, he both determines what laws will apply to the case as well as backs up the case. There is no jury at this level, in this matter. The judge is acting as both judge and jury.

Chief Perry took him on a tour in the presence of the prosecutor and the Polo Club lawyer. He got to see into the site what everything that the witnesses were talking about [during the court case].

Regarding the final decision, both sides were supposed to submit post-trial briefs by November 10. The judge will review the evidence from the four days of trial that we had, plus the site visit. Once reviewed, the judge is supposed to make a final decision by November 17, at 9 a.m.

Members of the Ramapough Lenape Nation march against the Pilgrim Pipeline
Members of the Ramapough Lenape Nation march against the Pilgrim Pipeline (maisa_nyc | flickr)

WE'VE PREVIOUSLY asked you about the specific legal tactics employed by the township to suppress the tribe's organized opposition to the Pilgrim pipeline. To what extent is the mere presence of the tribe being criminalized?

IN MY opinion, the township is basically trying to abuse the zoning process and laws in order to force us out, because that's what the Polo Club wants. And unfortunately, the Polo Club has prevailed on many members of the town council administration to do just that.

It's important to know that the land referred to in the court case is our ancient ceremonial lands and also our property under the laws of New Jersey. The town has taken the position that people coming onto our land for ceremony or for prayer--or what they call religious purposes--are in violation of the Mahwah zoning ordinances.

They're saying that it is illegal for people to come onto the land for prayer, even if there weren't any tents or teepees--any "permanent structures" as they call them, though they're not permanent.

They're going as far as to say a teepee or a tent--which again is not a permanent structure, as any Boy Scout or Girl Scout can tell you--needs a zoning permit. In other words, if you lived in Mahwah and put up a tent in your backyard, the zoning officer might tell you that you need to have a permit to do that.

What's interesting are the things they forget to mention, whether intentionally are not.

One is that the State of New Jersey--namely, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) itself--examined the site and concluded that because these are temporary structures, no permit is needed from the DEP. The DEP didn't see any violations.

This has everything to do with power and money and the age-old problem of the American apartheid--and very little to do with law and justice.

WHAT IS the total amount that the township is fining the tribe?

TO BE honest, I've lost track. Even during the court case, they've been issuing violation notices. We're probably up to $50,000, $60,000 now, and if you were to add up the total potential jail time, maybe 10 years.

I'm not sure who they want to put in jail. But they claim that each of these zoning violations can be punished up to $1,250 and/or up to 90 days in jail. They're claiming the right to make all the violations cumulative.

WHERE IS the opposition to the tribe coming from?

THE RAMAPOUGH Hunter & Polo Club--they're a neighborhood/community association. Not everyone in the club is the type to try to push us out. There are some who sit down to talk to us on our land. But unfortunately, the faction that seems to be trying to remove us is the one that's in charge.

This is a political case. As I mentioned in the previous interview, we have internal documents in which one of the neighbors, a mansion owner, Ms. Kathleen Murray, is on record for writing, "[Y]ou [the town] told us that they're not breaking any laws having tents on the land,"--our land--and then she wrote, "If they're not breaking any laws, we're going to have to write some new ones."

What I find ironic is that during the time of the judge's visit to the site, there were five or six workers who appeared to be of Mexican descent. They were blowing leaves off the lawn of one of these million-dollar mansions.

So what these guys from the Polo Club are saying is that Mexicans who come to serve us can come to do the work we don't want to do or can't do or won't do--the dirty work. But if they come over that bridge and onto our land to pray--which many have done--then they need a permit, otherwise they're doing it illegally.

This is part of a larger pattern of historical discrimination and abuse.

The first civil rights case regarding discrimination in schools was not Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. It was desegregating the Brook School in Hillburn, N.Y., one of our communities in 1943. That shows you the dynamics that have been going on in this area.

I told the town that all this reminds me of stories of some relatives in Alabama. These community members of the Polo Club probably look at themselves as very urban and intelligent and "oh, we're not racist," but yet here we are.

We're not even "moving into the neighborhood," because this is our ancestral land. It's not like we're moving anywhere--we've always been here. They have the nerve to call us trespassers while on our land.

The main irony I find is that they don't see who the real trespassers are. Mahwah has 11 identified contaminants--who knows how many are not identified. And these jokers want to lose their minds over who's praying on their own land?

DURING THE court proceeding on October 31, it was infuriating to see zoning code being dissected for hours, picking uselessly at language and definitions. As you said, the legal system has often been used against Native people. What are other important examples of when the legal system has been used against Native communities?

THERE ARE lots of laws that weren't designed with justice in mind, but to perpetuate an apartheid system.

Jim Crow is the greatest example, and an equally important one is the New Jim Crow. We now have 5 percent of the world's population, but over 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population.

As it relates to Native communities, Gov. Chris Christie is a good example. Despite laws on the books recognizing three "Indian Tribes" and communities of Indigenous nations, and despite having a New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs, the Christie administration has told the federal government that there are no Indigenous people in New Jersey. Which has led to people being denied scholarships and certain livelihoods that are tied to that recognition.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation organized to challenge that in court.[1] They have some cases for all of us across New Jersey. Christie is an example of the highest official in New Jersey--a person who is supposed to be looking out for all of our interests--having an administration that simply ignored the law.

AFTER THE final court date, you said, "These people don't care about justice--this has everything to do with the law, practice and history of discrimination." What does it mean to say this case is about power?

TO A certain extent, all legal cases are about power. Our case is about not only power, but what path forward we are going to take with regard to our land and our water. It is important not just for Indigenous people, but for life on this planet that our rights to the land--our relationship to the land--be respected.

From a modern industrial point of view--whether it's to exploit the environment in terms of mining or mineral resources, or to protect the environment--the environment is seen as an object, as something distinct and separate from humanity and other beings. We see ourselves as reflected in the environment and the environment is reflected in us.

The Ramapough, the Nakota, Lakota, Navajo, Gana Khajana, Small Hawk--this is just a small sample of our communities that are trying to lead us in a different path--one in which we know and respect each other, and respect our relationship to the Earth itself.

That's what this case is fundamentally about--going in a different direction than what we're going in terms of how we relate to each other, the land and the water. Our neighbors don't seem to see that and that's to their own detriment.

WHAT CAN people do to support you in the future?

IF YOU can show up at the court cases, that would be the best form of solidarity. Chief Perry and I have criminal charges to be heard on November 16. The next day, we have the judge's decision. A few days later, on Monday November 27, another of our tribe's water protectors, Harold, aka "Uncle," has a court date for having an alleged connection to vandalism that was done to Polo Club property back in May. We ask that court supporters arrive early and wear red.

And, of course, we're also in urgent need of funds to cover legal fees. After that, maybe some of these Amnesty International-style campaigns could have a role to play--you know, letter writing as one more way of letting the town know that they're being watched.


1. The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, Powhatan Renape and Ramapough Lenape had been recognized by New Jersey for over 35 years before, in 2012, the state revoked that recognition, resulting in the federal government's categorizing these three tribes as "social groupings". Three years later, in July 2015, the tribe filed a five-count civil rights complaint. A federal court ruled in the tribe's favor in October 2016, but the Superior Court of New Jersey Law Division dismissed the tribe's complaint. Most recently, in August 2017, a state appeals court reversed the dismissal, allowing the 3,000-member tribal nation to proceed with its civil rights lawsuit.

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