"Will an oil pipeline proposed for tribal lands destroy the Ramapough Lenape Nation along the New Jersey-New York border? Or will it be the catalyst that once again unites the tribe?
The Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Camp along the Ramapo River in New Jersey, where the Ramapough Lenape Nation has been staging a protest against a proposed oil pipeline.
The phone rang in his study and Dwaine Perry answered with the weary resignation of a man who knew what was coming. The sun was setting on a late March evening as Mr. Perry listened to the voice on the other end of the line. “Go on,” he said, drooping his chin into his neck. Then came an extended pause, followed by a well-practiced recital of sympathies and condolences. “Well, I’ll get to work,” he finally said before hanging up. Time to plan another funeral.
An elder of the Ramapough Lenape Nation had just died, and Mr. Perry, as chief of the tribe, was charged with leading a prayer on behalf of the community. He has grown woefully accustomed to this ritual. This was the second elder to die that month and the third in a year.
“That is what tribal life used to look like,” said Mr. Perry, retrieving a framed photograph from his bookshelf. In the image, decades old, he is guiding a prayer ceremony, surrounded by more than three dozen tribal elders. Now only six elders remain.
“That’s all I deal with these days,” Mr. Perry, 69, said. “Death and paperwork.”
Crowding the desk before him was a vast assortment of documents, piled in unruly stacks. This is what the work of the chief had become: grant applications, local petitions, fund-raising letters, legal fees.
Indeed, for the Ramapoughs, a group of indigenous people native to the highlands around Mahwah, N.J., life has often been a series of excruciating struggles over rights and resources. The tribe has an embattled history marked by colonial occupation, environmental degradation, discrimination, and clashes with politicians and real estate developers. Over the years, they have been left greatly diminished, a proud tribe working to stave off eradication and invisibility.
But the Ramapoughs have experienced something of an awakening in recent months. After a developer proposed an oil pipeline that would run through their native land — and potentially threaten the region’s water supply — the tribe began a wave of protests that has drawn together its dwindling members. They were galvanized further by the election of President Trump, whom they see as an enemy to the environment and indigenous life at large — and an old foe of the tribe in particular. Now this small and beleaguered community is preparing for battle with forces both local and national. For Mr. Perry, the stakes are nothing short of the existence of the Ramapoughs.
“We’ll either last another thousand years,” Mr. Perry said, “or get wiped out entirely.”
The Ramapough Indians are descended from a Munsee-speaking subset of the Lenape, an aboriginal people of the Mid-Atlantic Region. They were once a vast and thriving tribe fanned across the area, but after European invasion many Ramapoughs dispersed across the West. Still, some stayed, evading colonial rule in the mountains around the border of New York and New Jersey, where they’ve largely remained. Today, the tribe estimates, there are between 1,000 and 3,000 Ramapoughs in the area and as many as 4,000 nationally.
But the tribe’s reclusive lifestyle fueled an already-potent strand of anti-native racism. For years, they have been disparaged as “inbreeds,” “Jackson Whites” and other slurs referring to misconceptions about their ancestry. The issue arises in part from a census classification system in New Jersey. Until 1870, the state allowed for residents to be counted only as white, black free or black slave, causing many Ramapoughs to be misclassified — a gap in genealogy that was filled with fallacies and folk tales by the surrounding white population.
This is hardly the stuff of colonial history. In 2007, a year after the fatal shooting of a Ramapough man by a ranger with New Jersey State Park Police, the state issued a report detailing the “blatant discrimination” faced by natives as well as the “benign neglect by the state to significant and direct threats to their physical and economic well-being.”
As a result of such prejudice, many Ramapoughs end up bridging two worlds. In private, they freely embrace tribal culture and customs, speaking Munsee and dressing in traditional garb. But outside of the home, many say, they assume a more assimilated lifestyle. Mr. Perry rarely uses his tribal moniker, Iron Bear, in public. It can be difficult, he said, to get a bank loan with such a name.
“People start treating you really differently all of a sudden when you start going by a Ramapough name,” said a 49-year-old man who insisted on using only his tribal name, Owl.
Though their native region, only 30 miles from New York City, has become a relatively wealthy suburb, many Ramapoughs still straddle the poverty line. The families who can afford to live here often squeeze more than 10 relatives into their ancestors’ old wood-frame homes. The unemployment rate is high, they say, and those who are employed mostly work modest jobs, such as plumbing or construction.
Driving through town on a recent Friday morning, Mr. Perry lamented the landscape’s transformation. Much of the Ramapough pass has been paved into highway. Gas stations, he said, stand atop tribal burial grounds. And the stretch of Sixth Street in Hillburn, N.Y., where many Ramapoughs once lived, is now littered with “for sale” signs. It can seem as if only vestiges of tribal life remain.
“We’ve got Ramapo College, Ramapo River, Ramapo police,” Mr. Perry said. “Just no Ramapough Indians.”
Since he became chief in 2006, Mr. Perry has often found it challenging to mobilize the tribe in times of need. But recently he has fastened on to an issue that has alarmed his people. In 2014, Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings released plans to construct a pair of oil pipelines that would pass through Ramapough territory. According to the proposal, the pipelines would each stretch 178 miles underground, running from Albany to Linden, N.J. Heading south, the channel would carry 200,000 barrels each day of crude Bakken shale, a volatile variety of oil from Montana and North Dakota. Gasoline and aviation fuel would flow north.
Pilgrim executives say that the $1 billion project would provide a stable supply of petroleum products to a region starved for direct access to refineries. But many environmental experts caution that the pipeline poses a risk of widespread safety hazards and pollution, with the possibility for a spill that could taint several critical sources of drinking water for New York and New Jersey. “Even a relatively modest oil spill could wipe out the water supply of millions of people for up to a year,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
In the heart of the affected zone would be the Ramapoughs, who say their sacred sites could be violated, along with the risk to their river. (George Bochis, vice president for development with Pilgrim, said that his company had met with the tribe to discuss their concerns and that they were developing “a mitigation and protection plan for any artifacts discovered.”)
The tribe’s concerns were also spiritual: For generations, Ramapoughs have passed along a prophecy warning that their section of the highlands would someday face a grave threat to its waters and land. At that time, the earlier elders always advised, the Ramapoughs would have to band together to pray in the night and protect the earth.
This is not the first time the tribe has faced environmental peril. Between 1967 and 1971, the Ford Motor Company dumped industrial waste from its nearby factory in the woods of Upper Ringwood, where many Ramapough families lived. Large swaths of the community had asthma, cancer, diabetes, miscarriages, skin conditions. To this day, the Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing a remediation of the site.
“As indigenous people, we’ve been fighting these battles for generations,” Owl said.
The Pilgrim pipeline faces months of reviews before approval can be granted, but the Ramapoughs are already leading a forceful resistance. Soon after the pipeline was proposed, Mr. Perry marshaled the tribe to action, organizing rallies, lobbying local politicians and packing a series of raucous public meetings.
Their efforts intensified last fall. Inspired by protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline that drew thousands of indigenous people and their allies to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota last year, the tribe began holding demonstrations at Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Camp, the main ceremonial grounds of its 14-acre territory. They have also erected several tepees that serve as a popular hub for prayer and organizing, and a small number of people have been staying in tents on the property.
The pipeline protest has united the Ramapoughs unlike any moment many elders can recall. Some lapsed Ramapoughs have even been inspired to connect with tribal life once again.
Muriyd Williams, 24, who goes by the tribal name Two Clouds, is descended from the tribe through his Ramapough grandmother. But after years of intolerance from people in the area, his grandmother began telling people she was Sicilian and encouraged him to hide his heritage. Around the time the pipeline was proposed, though, he dived back into the Ramapough community. Now, he is one of around a half-dozen tribal members occupying the prayer camp. He is also learning Munsee and educating nearby college students about the tribe.
“It feels like a big family reunion,” he said. “The pipeline gave us a reason to come back together, and now we’re here to stay.”
While the tribe and allied environmental groups intend to block approval of the pipeline at the state level, they worry that conservative leaders in Washington could upend the entire regulatory process.
“Pilgrim has a lot of hurdles ahead of them now, but that could all change under Trump,” Mr. Tittel, of the Sierra Club, said. “Our biggest concern is that they’re just waiting for Republicans to change the law.”
For many Ramapoughs, that fear is rooted in a rancorous history with Mr. Trump. In 1993, the tribe was already recognized by New Jersey and was under consideration for federal status when he began a crusade to thwart the application. Fearing competition for his casinos in Atlantic City, Mr. Trump filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allows for gambling on tribal land, discriminated against him.
The suit was accompanied by an aggressive media campaign. Appearing on Don Imus’s radio show in June that year, Mr. Trump complained about a “double standard” on taxes and insinuated that the Ramapoughs and other tribes were misrepresenting their ancestry.
“I think I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations,” Mr. Trump said.
Later, at a congressional hearing on Indian gambling in October, he said, “They don’t look like Indians to me.”
The Bureau of Indian Affairs rejected the tribe’s application.
“Trump ran a smear campaign, plain and simple,” Mr. Perry, the chief of the tribe, said. “And now we’re still dealing with the consequences of the racist lie he perpetuated.” (Mr. Trump’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Without federal designation, the Ramapoughs are excluded from a variety of rights and services, such as financial loans, health care access, allotted land and tribal governance.
But before they can take on Mr. Trump, the Ramapoughs must contend with their neighbors. Ever since the tribe began demonstrations on its campground, residents and local officials from Mahwah have been at loggerheads with the Ramapoughs. In late November, a neighbor called the police to report the tribe for constructing tepees on the land, in apparent violation of the town’s zoning regulations. A week later, neighbors again called, now claiming excessive noise. The complaints continued for weeks, with neighbors objecting to a range of issues, like parking enforcement and the tribe’s setting mulch on its property.
Around the same time, Ramapoughs reported to the police that they found their property had been defaced with bigoted messages, including a swastika. The graffiti allegations followed episodes earlier that year, in which the tribe reported that several of its religious items had been stolen or vandalized.
The town penalized the tribe with a series of violations, though those have been adjourned as officials review the tribe’s newly submitted site plans. Tribal leaders are hoping for an amicable resolution but say they are concerned by what they see as “selective enforcement” by the town. They say that similar sanctions are not imposed upon nonindigenous residents who, for example, camp in their yards or erect canopies for parties. “This is just part of a long history of the town chastising the Ramapough,” said Joel Kupferman, executive director of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project.
Mr. Perry directs Mr. Williams and Don Wiese as they hang a tarp on the food shed; structures erected at the camp have drawn complaints from Mahwah, N.J., residents.
Mayor William C. Laforet of Mahwah said that the town treated the tribe “just like everyone else,” and that he even joined the Ramapoughs in their opposition to the pipeline. The town, he said, is simply enforcing zoning laws for safety purposes.
“I wouldn’t call it adversarial, but I would say there’s a concerned attitude about some of the tribe’s behavior,” Mr. Laforet said. “They want to attract attention to their cause and that’s great, but when they violate regulations we have to step in.”
Even amid the simmering tensions, the pipeline protests have continued. On a Sunday afternoon during the winter, more than 100 people converged on the prayer camp for a religious ceremony and teach-in. While Ramapoughs led the gathering, nearly half of the participants were activists with no formal connection to the tribe — indigenous people from other nations like the Onondaga and Shinnecock, but also people from Black Lives Matter and Greenpeace.
“The solidarity is incredible to witness,” said Julie Richards, 44, an activist from the Oglala Lakota Nation in Pine Ridge, S.D., who traveled to Mahwah to support the protests. “Native communities know better than anyone the stakes of protecting Mother Earth.”
The gathering, which included drum circles and solemn worship, was filled with a sense of mission. As they packed into a tepee, faces aglow around a raging fire, the protesters seemed ready for wherever that dispute may take them. One man said he would sleep out there every night if he had to, and another said he would go so far as to chain himself to an excavator.
But that fervor has been tricky to sustain. Only two days after the rally, Mr. Trump signed executive orders reviving both the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. For the tribe, the losses were demoralizing and depleting. Since then, the Ramapoughs’ events have seen scant news media attention and thinning crowds.
With countless other crises to manage under the new administration, many local activists seem to have diverted their attention elsewhere.
“As always,” Mr. Perry said, “it’s the Ramapoughs against the world.”
It was an overcast morning in March, and Mr. Perry was sitting inside the tepee on his designated tree stump. The survival of the Ramapoughs, he knew, was in the hands of the tribe alone, and there was something both empowering and grim about that fact. The task often feels so daunting that he said he found it helped to focus on small, concrete tasks — “things I know I can do.” That morning, a storm appeared to be looming over the mountain, so his goal was simply to maintain a fire inside the tent.
“Let’s just keep her going,” Mr. Perry said, as he poked the fire with a stick.
Gusts of wind whipped against the tepee, and the fire began to flicker. Soon the blaze was down to embers.
Then a flap lifted and in walked Two Clouds, a bundle of logs in each arm. The chief lowered himself back onto his stump and watched as the young man arranged the wood in a careful stack atop the embers. The fire was soon burning and it was beginning to feel warm inside."