NJ Native Bands Preserve Their Piece By Carrying On The Past
For much of his childhood in Mahwah, Steve Burton had a creeping feeling that something about him, about his family, was different.
He would come to learn years later – well into his thirties, in fact – that this sentiment was one his family had carried for generations.
“My grandparents were told not to reveal their Native identity because they were afraid of being sent out West,” said Burton, a descendant of Ramapough Lenape and Oneida Natives. “At my grandmother’s funeral, my dad made a comment about my grandmother saying, ‘Look at that Indian nose.’ Then he came out and told me about it.
Burton is co-chairman of the New Jersey Commission on Indian Affairs, a body formed by former Governor Jon Corzine in response to the death 2006 filming of Ramapough Lenape member Emil Mann by a State Park Police officer.
The US Air Force veteran, now 63, said that while his grandparents were alive, indigenous people in the New Jersey area still lived in fear of being evicted from their lands in the mountains of Ramapo to destitute reservations in the West – or to have their children taken away and sent to boarding schools.
Even hundreds of years removed from the Ramapoughs’ first contact with European settlers, the 5,000 enrolled members who remain in New Jersey today are still fighting to preserve their share of the state and their heritage.
Although they comprise more than half of the state’s residents who identify as Native, they have only been officially recognized as a tribe since 1980 (and only by the state of New Jersey, despite countless calls for federal tribal rights). Along with the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape and Powhatan Renape nations, the Ramapoughs just had their status restored by the state in 2019, six years after former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration quietly disavowed them in 2012.
The removal of tribal rights from the state came as the Christie administration paved the way for the New Jersey Casino Expansion Amendment, although Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape’s own tribal laws already prohibited gambling. within the framework of his spiritual beliefs. The ensuing lawsuit, first filed by the Nanticoke Nation, called the state’s decision to remove tribal status “an irrational and racially stereotyped fear that any Native American tribe, if recognized as such.” , will seek to organize games in competition with non-Indian gaming interests.
But according to Burton, the Ramapough’s grievances barely ended with the eventual settlement that returned tribal rights to native groups. At the same time the state was settling that lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Justice sided with the Ramapoughs in a long standoff between Mahwah Township and the Ramapo Hunt & Polo Club, an affluent residential community nestled near a tribal property that the Ramapoughs use for spiritual ceremonies. Residents of the township and the polo club claimed that the Ramapough’s use of their tribal property – namely the erection of prayer poles and tents – disturbed the peace and violated zoning laws, resulting in dozens of thousands of dollars worth of quotes for the group.
Additionally, the Ramapough Nation is still grappling with the aftermath of the toxic dumping on its land in Ringwood by Ford Motor Co, which the municipality authorized in the mid-20th century. The group reached a $21 million settlement with the township and Ford in the spring of 2019 after decades of illness and other health consequences for Indigenous residents in the area.
The 500-acre Federal Superfund site has long polluted the land around former iron mines with arsenic, benzene and lead. The chemical 1,4-dioxane, a colorless solvent that health officials say causes cancer, was also discovered in 2015, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA unveiled a corrective action work plan at the end of 2020 which set the goal of completing the cleanup of the area in October 2021 and installing a recycling center at the site in February this year. – but according to EPA Progress Reportno such corrective action has taken place.
Reclamation times are now estimated at 2023, according to milestones on the EPA website.
“At our powwows, the members are mostly younger because a lot of older Ramapoughs died from (illness related to) the toxic spill by Ford,” Burton said. “We are still fighting it because people are still dying from it.”
The icing on the cake of all those battles, Burton said, is the Ramapoughs’ latest feud with the Liberty National Golf Course on the Caven Point peninsula, which Ramapough leaders and environmental groups want to preserve with the passage of the Liberty State Park Protection Act. In a letter to Governor Phily MurphyBurton and dozens of representatives from local and state environmental groups and park associations say Liberty National is pushing to add three more holes on hallowed ground.
The Ramapoughs consider the site a historical landmark based on records of a 1643 attack by Dutch settlers on Lenape who had settled at Caven Point, killing over 100 men, women and children. A bill prohibiting any private or commercial development on the public park was approved by the state Senate in December 2021, but its future is uncertain.
Telling what it means to be Indigenous in New Jersey — a state that has become a bastion of progressivism during the pandemic with the passing of some of the toughest environmental justice laws in the country — the real story is one. of necessary and age-old persistence in rectifying institutional wrongdoing. Burton said he was not daunted by the task, its importance made all the more urgent by growing private interest in some of New Jersey’s most pristine landscapes.
“What would you do to preserve your family’s heritage?” Burton said.
Claire Garland, a Lenape and Cherokee descendant who settled about a mile west of Asbury Park as early as the 1600s, preserves her own family’s little-known history through meticulous record-keeping. Garland’s organization, the Sand Hill Indian History Association, provides the state’s only online database of documents, official records, and other resources documenting Sand Hill’s native history, as well as genealogical assistance for those seeking to investigate their origins.
As principal of SHIHA, the 77-year-old retired teacher maintains a record of successful Aboriginal people in their corner of Jersey. Her ancestors, skilled businessmen and merchants, lived and worked alongside the white community in a unique social ecosystem where Garland’s ancestors thrived despite not being considered US citizens until in 1924.
Unlike Barton and many other descendants of Native ancestry, Garland has always known her family’s well-recorded history through a wealth of heirlooms and other artifacts held by the Old Neptune Historical Museum. Garland said she believed the Sand Hill natives succeeded because of a treaty they signed in 1778 with the fledgling American government, which agreed to support the tribe and respect its territory.
“Things were saved there that could have been lost as different generations kind of died out and moved on,” Garland said. “They were businessmen, they were builders, they were entrepreneurs, and that was the name of the game: be successful and survive.”
The Sand Hill natives, she said, are remarkable for being part of an American mosaic that doesn’t just tell a story of suffering and heinous persecution at the hands of settlers. SHIHA’s work is, in itself, an act of resistance, perpetuating the past in a way that challenges the expectations of Indigenous histories by showcasing Indigenous land ownership and skilled labor.
“It shows you what people could do with freedom. I just think it just helps your historical perspective, to know how your family lived 100 years ago and helped build the nation,” Garland said. “A lot of people who didn’t want to assimilate, didn’t want to settle and didn’t want to pay taxes and all of that migrated, further west, but this group decided to stay.”
For more information on the SHIHA, help trace native genealogy and exhibits, visit sandhillindianhistory.org. Information about the Ramapough Lenape can be found at ramapomunsee.net.
ME Lewis is a Jersey tomato currently growing on a Brooklyn vine. She covered South Jersey, Union County and Newark and spent a lot of time discovering all that is weird and cool in her home country.
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