The Ramapough won’t be silenced

October 30, 2017

Last weekend, New Yorkers marked the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy with a march and rally to pressure Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sen. Chuck Schumer to take action to prepare the city for future storms.

One of the speakers at the march was Owl, a member of the Ramapough Lenape Tribe. For three years, the Ramapough Lenape have been protesting the Pilgrim Pipeline project that would flow directly through Ramapough Lenape land--located to the west and north of New York City, carrying 200,000 barrels of crude shale oil each 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.

Last year, inspired by the thousands of people protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Ramapough began holding demonstrations at the Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Camp, the main ceremonial grounds of its 14-acre territory. They have also erected several tepees as a popular hub for prayer and organizing, and a small number of people have been staying in tents on the property. After the march, Owl spoke with Yoni Golijov about the day's events and the ongoing struggle.

CAN YOU tell me about what's going on at Ramapough Mountain?

RIGHT NOW, we are in the middle of a struggle for our survival as a people.

We're the descendants of the original people of Manhattan. And we survived by going to the Ramapo Mountains, which is within the New York metropolitan area. In particular, we're at the Ramapo Pass. We are called guardians of the passageway--we are keepers of the pass.

This is our land, our ancestral land, and we've had documented ceremonies there from before there even was a United States.

Now with the destruction of our environment--with the pipelines that come through and other destructive infrastructure--we're at a crossroads. Not just for ourselves as the Ramapough people, but for humanity. So we are taking a stand against the pipelines.

We are currently under attack by the town of Mahwah and the Polo Club [a gated community next to the Ramapoughs' land], supposedly for praying without a permit and putting Teepees on our land, which they're considering to be permanent buildings.

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

We're at a crossroads where either we're going to learn to live together as human beings and live with our environment--or all of us, not just Ramapough people, are going to be destroyed.

HOW DID the latest round of these attacks on the Ramapough begin?

LIKE I said, this is our ancestral land. But over time, what happened was that a new community arose--these million-dollar mansions and houses, where they've never been comfortable with us coming to the land and having ceremonies.

They've always been afraid of us because we pretty much control the mountain. That's still where we're concentrated, even though many of us have gone through a process of gentrification and being removed from the town through zoning.

When we started having meetings in opposition to the pipelines and in support of Standing Rock, that's when our most recent series of troubles started. We found out that a geologist who is a consultant to the fossil fuel companies actually lives in our neighborhood, and now he's one of the major people opposing us.

And others have really taken the position quite frankly that they just don't want any Black people, Brown people or Red people in their neighborhood. It's the whole pattern of discrimination.

If you're Indigenous, it seems to be a situation where many settlers or new people say, "Just move somewhere else, and then we can have peace." So it's the same old song-and-dance, in some respects.

WHAT KIND of tactics have the state and the community used against your struggle?

WE GOT a chance to see some of their internal communications--something one of the owners of the mansions wrote. She actually wrote to the town, "I know, you told us that they're not breaking any laws having tents on the land," and then she wrote, "if they're not breaking any laws, then we have to write some new ones."

I think that's a metaphor for the world we live in and the people who have that kind of power and money and privilege. It's important to quote this exactly: "If they're not breaking any laws, then we have to write some new ones."

They didn't expect we would see that. They didn't expect that that kind of correspondence would see the light of day. That was the owner of the million-dollar mansion giving the town marching orders. She said, "They don't vote. We vote. We pay taxes." They've used that to devastating effect because they're trying to criminalize us.

Unfortunately, there's a long history and pattern of racism, hostility and discrimination.

One of our members, Emil Mann, was killed about 10 years ago on the mountains and left to bleed to death.

Some people were having a picnic, and then, I believe, park rangers showed up, trying to say that they shouldn't have ATVs there. One of the members apparently got into an altercation with an officer. That's when Emil Mann, who was known as a peaceful man, tried to intervene to calm the situation. But instead, he ended up being shot himself.

But while they divided some people in the community against us, many others have seen through that and actually participate in our ceremonies.

Now, myself and Chief Dwaine Perry, we've been charged with criminal mischief. I'll just quote what they said in the papers: They allege that I touched a security camera. This has nothing to do with justice--this is: How do we criminalize them and get rid of them?

The irony is that we're not only fighting for our water, we're fighting for the water of everyone. The Ford plant dumped untold amounts of toxic sludge in Ringwood, New Jersey, and my chief says the life expectancy has gone from 70s to 60s. One of the chemicals, 1,4-dioxane, is now a threat to the Wanaque reservoir, which is a source of drinking water for millions of people in New Jersey.

WHAT DID you think of how the march went in New York on the fifth anniversary of Sandy?

THE LAKOTA, Dakota and Nakota have a saying when they go into battle: "This is a good day to die." I would say that today was a good day to live.

We were going into a battle of sorts, but it was good seeing that people have this kind of consciousness--not only saying that the destruction of our air and our water and climate change are wrong, but actually doing something about them. That's what I found to be quite inspiring.

I'll say again something I said when I spoke at the march: In France, a first-world country, 40,000 people die because of air pollution every year. 40,000! In the United States, it's 200,000. That's not al-Qaeda. That's not ISIS. That's air pollution. I mean, where's the Pentagon on this? Where's SEAL Team Six?

I was glad to see all these people come together in New York to confront this issue, and particularly the support for and acknowledgment of Indigenous people by the organizers, and by Science for the People and the International Socialist Organization. Today, the sun is shining not just in the physical world, but also in my internal world and the world of justice.

WHAT CAN people do to support the struggle of the Ramapough?

WE HAVE a Facebook page--the Split Rock Sweetwater page. You can get on that site and like it and keep abreast of events.

Right now, we're in a period when we're probably going to see a lot of litigation on a lot of different fronts. So support on that front would be good.

People can donate to our legal defense fund. And if you live in New Jersey or New York, we have a court date on Tuesday, October 31 at 9 a.m., in Hackensack at the Bergen County Superior Court building in Room 426.

Wear red. It's the last day of our case [against the zoning summonses brought by the town of Mahwah targeting the Ramapough's teepees at Split Rock Sweetwater camp], and we want to show the judge that people of conscience support Ramapough--that we'll stand up for our rights to clean air and water and prayer.

Then, Chief Perry and myself have our criminal case starting on November 16 in the town of Mahwah at the Mahwah Municipal Court building.

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