Thursday, May 15, 2014

World as Classroom: Meeting the Ramapoughs

By Colin English

Ramapo College students talk with Ringwood resident
Jack Walker (photo: Judith Sullivan) 
In January, our Environmental Assessment class created Research and Investigation for Society and the Environment (RISE), a class project of 23 senior Environmental Studies students tasked with formulating an Environmental Impact Statement, with a specialization for Environmental Justice, for Chief Vincent Mann of the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough-Lenape Nation, and Judith Sullivan.of the Ramapough Conservancy. For a fuller overview of our project and the Ramapoughs, see the report and brochure our class compiled.

In the 1960s, Ford Motor Company disposed of approximately 30 million gallons of toxic  paint sludge from its Mahwah automobile plant with a concentration in and around abandoned iron mines in neighboring Ringwood, New Jersey. Home of the Ramapough-Lenape Nation Turtle Clan, a Native American tribe, the area possesses many toxic dangers to their community that are compounded by municipal wastes from the Borough of Ringwood and old iron mines.

The U.S. federal Environmental Protection Agency listed this contaminated area as a Superfund site, an area designated for significant cleaning, in 1983. More than three decades later, the contamination issues have yet to be resolved. Our project served to garner data for a more fulfilling clean-up plan than the EPA was in the process of finalizing, by gathering compelling evidence to show that the Ramapoughs, a socially marginalized and impoverished community, have born the disproportionate brunt of toxic waste dumping in the region.

So I raised my hand in Professor Michael Edelstein’s Environmental Studies’ capstone course to volunteer to be co-Project Manager of a student-run firm contracted to the Ramapough-Lenape Nation and I did not know who the Ramapoughs were. A student of Ramapo College of New Jersey for my undergraduate years, I had never meaningfully learned about the tribal lands our school rests atop of, nor that although our institution bears the anglicized version of their namesake, I had not once spoken to a member of the Ramapoughs. Unsurprisingly, I soon found this ignorance to be the norm for the people of Ramapo College.

As our project progressed throughout the course of the semester, my knowledge of the ecological and human damage the Ramapoughs endured quickly grew. Shocked by the massive levels of toxic materials and social stigma their community collectively endures, I began to talk with other Ramapo College students I encountered in the cafeteria, in classes, and at the campus office I worked in.

“Do you know about what happened to the Ramapoughs,” I would ask out of interest. “Who?” came the universal response. The rest of the conversation went like this for many people I spoke with:
    “The Ramapoughs, the Native American tribe with several communities in the mountains along upper NJ and lower NY. They are about a ten-minute drive from campus.”
    “Never heard of them. Do they live in teepees?”
    “No, they actually live in similar houses that we do, ” I replied.
    “Oh! Are they the crazy people from Weird New Jersey? In high school my friends and I would drive up there and hope we wouldn’t get killed.”
    “Nope, they are normal, friendly people just like you and I. And they’re not dangerous!” I would say, exasperated.

These conversations I had with a diverse cross-section of the Ramapo College student body attest to the level of misinformation about the Ramapough community. This ignorance was not malicious or representative of their character. Both located within the same locality, the Ramapo College community and the Ramapough Turtle Clan exist in a rift that is worlds apart. People either do not know or they are misled by pervasive social stigmatization.

Due to the Ramapoughs’ historical background and decades of neglect, an aura of distrust and sadness permeates their tribe. Despite this, the students in RISE were permitted to tour their community to gain a full perspective of the environmental harm from the dumping, the social neglect they have endured for centuries, and institutional failures that have plagued their community.

Arriving in the Ramapough Community

Ramapo students and Ramapough community leader
Vivian Milligan (photo: Nifty Nicole Haines)
When I arrived with RISE at the Ramapough Turtle Clan community in Upper Ringwood, it looked like just another segment of Ringwood. Residential, suburban, detached-single family homes and regular-looking people that contrasted with the wild imaginations of my fellow Ramapo students. Like any society, the Ramapoughs are not a homogenous group of people and have many different views, practices, and appearances. However, the Turtle Clan’s collective identity is distinctly Native American. Decades of social misconstruing have caused communities like Ramapo College, mere miles away, to incorrectly wonder if they really are Native American.

The Turtle Clan represents a unique blend of human resilience and adaptability. Much of their community lives in American-style homes built through the federal funding program, HOWTO, or in former mining company houses but utilize natural resources wherever possible. Environmental contamination has largely taken away their ability to continue cultural practices in the surrounding forest, so now they look and act very much like other residents of Ringwood.

By standard socio-economic measures, the Ramapoughs are impoverished and without political clout. What the standard measures does not describe is the profound sense of cultural identity, even with younger members who live outside of their community, and that they have been forced to live in an unsatisfying duality. They have lost their ability to practice their cultural traditions and natural-resource based society and now must be on our electrical grid, take low-wage jobs often miles away, collect food stamps to pay for processed food, and attempt to rely on a political system that has mistreated them for centuries.

Through our trips to Ringwood, it was apparent that the Ramapoughs do not neatly fit anywhere. They cannot practice their indigenous traditions, nor can they easily survive in a structure that was forcibly imposed on them. While they have retained their sense of place because they still live on a small portion of their tribal lands, their community has paid a massive price to do so. They have lost much of their culture, cannot enjoy healthy and long lives, and their resilience is constantly tested by inhuman treatment.

However, if I have learned anything from the Ramapoughs, it is that they will fight until the end. I only hope that RISE and the work of others can give them the help that will make a difference in their struggle for social and environmental justice.


  1. Lovely! It was an honor to work on this project.

  2. Beautifully written. It encourages me to read the depth of understanding you achieved and the importance of the RISE for the Tribe, the College and its students. Congratulations!