By Thomas Babcock
Ivy Payne spent most of her childhood running away from the stigma that followed her surname. Many within the Ramapough Lenape Nation, which she is a part of, have spent their lives unsuccessfully running away from the toxic sludge Ford Motor Co. notoriously left behind.
These are the micro and macro problems of a Ramapough tribe member.
Payne, who currently works at Ramapo College, is a graduate of Kaplan University, a mother of one and a proud member of the Ramapough Nation. She wasn’t always that way, however. Growing up, Payne remembers being stereotyped in high school, not by students, but faculty.
“I was prejudged in school by the teachers because of my last name," she said. "It made me so upset and resentful that I could not wait to graduate.”
Payne did not want to address the negative stereotypes, stating, “If I do talk about those things, it just keeps them alive. It’s better off to just dismiss them and not discuss it.”
She did, however, credit her Ramapough heritage with also having a positive impact on her childhood: “I grew up as a dancer in the tribe, which I did right up until I had my son seven years ago. We have a strong sense of community.”
The community of Rampough Indians is a group of about 5,000 people who reside in the Ramapo Mountains of northern New Jersey and southern New York. There is a history to the tribe being mistreated and discriminated against. The most famous example would be the lasting “toxic legacy” Ford Motor Co. has left, plaguing, arguably, countless lives.
During the 1960s, a Ford car factory in Mahwah, NJ dumped millions of gallons of paint sludge in a rural section of Ringwood, NJ that was populated predominately by the Ramapough. The after-effects of the dumping have caused many people who lived there to become sick, many fatally.
While Payne has not been directly affected, she knows many who have. “There’s a street where three people have died of kidney failure. My brother-in-law, who lived on that street, died out of the blue at the age of 21 from kidney problems," she recalled. "I also have a close friend who lives in Ringwood; she has a child with a rare muscle tone disease and we believe it was caused by the sludge. ”
And that is just a very small sample size.
Payne believes because that section of Ringwood was heavily Native American, it influenced the way Ford reacted to cleaning up the sludge once it became obvious problems were transpiring.
“I don’t think they really cared. Because the community wasn’t as wealthy or rich, to them it didn’t really matter. It‘s been a half-hearted response. It‘s really terrible.”
The situation did eventually warrant heavy media coverage, including the HBO documentary Mann V. Ford, which shows tribe member Wayne Mann’s fight for justice to be served. Payne believes news coverage has helped, but the problems still remain.
“The media definitely helped out, but a lot of the financial settlements provided by Ford were $3,000 or $5,000, which is not enough to cover the medical expenses these families have," she said. "My friend‘s son needed a rod to be placed in his back so he can breathe. That money was not enough for them.”
The frustrating part, for many, is the inability to pinpoint these problems to Ford’s toxic sludge. Even for Payne, who lives in nearby Hillburn, NY, there are anxieties about the uncertainty of who has been affected.
“It scares me, I’m too close to all of this with my son. He recently tested positive for lead in his system. We have no idea where it came from.”
Payne’s son is healthy now, but with a history of many becoming ill around her it’s easy to understand why she worries.This is something all Ramapough members living in the area have had to live with.
Being a Ramapough tribe member has heavily influenced Ivy Payne’s life, for better or worse. The negativity she received as a child for her name drove her to succeed in life to prove those people wrong. However, she will always have to live under the constant threat of sudden illness and being under-compensated financially, if one of her family members become sick from the toxic sludge.
Despite all of that, Payne wouldn’t trade her heritage or Ramapough upbringing for anything.
“It has made me who I am today.”