|On Alcatraz Island, a sunrise ceremony saw hundreds gather to honor the culture of Indigenous peoples and express solidarity with the fight against Dakota Access.
The Ramapough Lenape Nation is part of the great Lenape nation that populated broad swaths of what are now the Middle Atlantic States, from Connecticut to Maryland, when the first Europeans sailed across the ocean to seize land we had lived on since time immemorial. Despite centuries of genocidal exploitation of the land and peoples, here and across the United States, the Ramapough – recognized by the state of New Jersey as an indigenous nation – have survived and have no intention of going anywhere anytime soon.
Critical to our continued identity – indeed, to our very existence – is our right to express ourselves culturally and collectively, as we have done on a 13.5 acre piece of riverfront land we have owned since 1986 in Mahwah Township. But under the guise of enforcing zoning codes, non-indigenous Mahwah leaders are trying to force us off our land by claiming that tents and other temporary structures we use on our riverfront for ceremonial purposes somehow rise to the level of permanent structures requiring permits.
The selective enforcement imposed on legally protected Ramapough activities ranges from sending police officers to demand removal of tents and other pop-up structures to disregarding serious hate-crime allegations emerging from the theft of ceremonial logs on Ramapough land and the carving of swastikas on others.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection rejected Mahwah’s arguments that the temporary structures threatened to exacerbate flooding concerns and that the Ramapough’s bringing in mulch to stabilize the land was impermissible.
Significantly, neighboring non-indigenous property owners who undertake the same kinds of activities – whether constructing temporary structures such as tents, or bringing in mulch to stabilize and enhance their land – are not subject to any of the selective enforcement powers that Mahwah is seeking to impose on the Ramapough.
That is why the American Indian Law Alliance and the New Jersey Chapter and Environmental Justice Committee of the National Lawyers Guild – along with local and national organizations championing religious freedom, indigenous rights and environmental protection – have joined with the Ramapough to resist compliance with summonses issued by Mahwah demanding that we take down the tepees, tents and other pop-up structures we have placed on our land to carry out religious and cultural activities central to our survival as a people.
Just as towns and cities nationwide have tried to use zoning codes to block Muslim communities from erecting mosques where they can practice their religion, Mahwah’s actions are clearly designed to block the Ramapough from freely engaging in protected religious and cultural expression.
We recently met with township officials, who stayed their attempted enforcement actions for 60 days – a gesture we appreciate, but which does not change the underlying principle that our protected activities cannot be subject to their selective oversight.
These rights are recognized internationally under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination – and, nationally, under the First Amendment and in the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which expressly protects against religious discrimination in land-use policies and actions.
This is a time of awakening across the country for indigenous peoples, best exemplified by the struggle in North Dakota by the Standing Rock Sioux against the threats posed by the Dakota Access Pipeline to burial sites and other ceremonial land the pipeline would cross.
Similarly, the Ramapough have worked with indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacy, to protect against depredations threatened by the Pilgrim Pipeline, which is proposed to carry oil from those same Bakken fields in North Dakota through Mahwah on a route taking it from Albany to a New Jersey refinery at Linden.
Protecting our land is critical to our survival as a people, and critical to the health and safety of the non-indigenous neighbors with whom we now share this land.
We are stronger when we stand together.
Dwaine Perry is chief of the Ramapough Lenape Nation. Betty Lyons, a citizen of the Onondaga Nation, is president of the American Indian Law Alliance.