By Brittany Ryan
The "Toxic Legacy" story in Ringwood, New Jersey is more than a story of environmental negligence. It is a tragedy of widespread contamination of land and its surrounding community. Sprawling roots that penetrate the soils and extend deep into the earth are not only rich in microorganisms, but in a culture as well. This is something that many spectators of the Ford paint-dumping case seem to overlook.
Members of the Ramapough Mountain Indian Tribe have visited my class to speak about their personal experiences and I have absorbed many stories. When I relay to outsiders the details of this tale of corporate ignorance and government apathy, a common response is shared amongst the listeners. Why do the community members choose to stay living in this toxic environment? This proved difficult to respond to until I witnessed a student ask a Tribe member. In some ways it is a choice, but mostly it is a prideful obligation. With ancestry stemming back to the Revolutionary times, there is a connection to the land that is passed down from generation to the next. Stepping foot in the same wooded region where one’s great grandfather had also spent his nights fowling and mining brings a sense of belongingness.
And why should the community be forced to sever ties with their history? Perhaps remaining in the area is the only way to secure federal attention and to slowly bring restoration. If the people flee, there is no more pressure and certainly no more evidence that the surrounding lead, arsenic, and benzene contaminants are causing a cancer rise in this confined neighborhood.
Although some are exhausted with what uninvited changes the exposure has brought into their lives, the thought of a broken community hinders relocation from progressing. Some members simply cannot afford to leave, others are unwilling, and if a few moved elsewhere the tightly woven threads that hold this close knit community together would begin to fray.
Even if members successfully settled in the outside community, assimilating into such an industrialized and parochial culture would be almost insurmountable. An incredible amount of individuals are unaware of the truth behind the Tribe, holding on to archaic and completely distorted prejudices about the culture. Countless times I have had to correct these misunderstandings amongst peers, and there are several reports of children being ridiculed at school. Clearly myths supersede history in a community’s knowledge of their members.
Living in these mountains and learning to survive off the supplied resources is a way of life that has been incorporated into the families for centuries; operating any other way would feel unnatural. The mountains offer a sense of place, where the residents choose to continue to use ancestral land-use practices to sustain their livelihood. When one’s backyard has remained an intact and endless forest rich in natural capital, shifting to a place where the yard may become a neighbor’s fenced in pool is a troubling thought.
Perhaps asking a typical suburban member to exchange their materialistic lifestyle for simplistic living that thrives off the land would be a similar trade. Maybe looking at the situation from the Tribe’s perspective would offer insight on why leaving home is not so easy to do.