Ramapo Trials

My first encounter with the Ramapo Indians was at the première of "Toxic Legacy" at the New Jersey Film Festival two summers ago. The documentary was produced by "The Record" to accompany the newspaper's exposé of Ford's complicity in contaminating the watersheds of northern New Jersey by dumping sludge and other industrial waste from their erstwhile Mahwah plant in the surrounding areas of Stag Hill, Hillburn and Ringwood. Coincidentally or not, all three towns have significant concentrations of these Native American Indians.

The 5000-people strong Ramapo community share their ancestry with Lenape Indians and Dutch soldiers who fought the colonists during the American Revolutionary War. After the defeat of the British, many of the mercenaries deserted their ranks and took refuge in the Ramapo mountains, where the inaccessible and inhospitable terrain shielded them from capture, but eventually isolated them from the frenetic pace of development in New York City, only thirty miles away. Although the Ramapo people formed the backbone of the mining activities that thrived in the Ringwood area, they still hold on to their traditional ways, such as fishing and hunting rabbits and deer. Their distrust of the "white man" has also been responsible for the myths circulating around them, including the pejorative use of the term "Jackson Whites" (allegedly a contraction of Jacks, or freed slaves, and Whites) in referring to them.

Even though the states of New Jersey and New York acknowledge the Ramapo as a Native American Indian tribe, they have not been granted federal recognition and all the benefits that accompany it, as a consequence of successful lobbying by big gambling interests. David Cohen's sympathetic study of the mountain people, while denying that they have direct Native Indian heritage, offers instances of the prejudice and discrimination that the Ramapo Indians have had to face, including segregated schools and churches as late as the mid-20th century. However, all these struggles pale into insignificance when compared to the injustice they have been meted out by unbridled corporate greed that has polluted their land and water. A visit to Peters Mine today, which had 17 levels and reached 2000 feet underground, is shocking not only because the huge honeycomb of shafts, tunnels and caverns has been stuffed with toxic paint sludge and automobile parts, but because it is a mere stone's throw away from the ramshackle company houses that are inhabited by the Ramapo Indians. Prolonged exposure to these pollutants has resulted in this community having a much higher incidence of cancer and asthma, even while the Environmental Protection Agency has declared the area off-bounds as a Superfund site.

The Ramapo mountain people, who had come out in full force to the film's screening, dominated the question-and-answer session with the director trying to unearth the truth behind successive mishandled government clean-up operations and repeated cover-ups by Ford. While it was heartbreaking to watch the families trying to come to terms with the greed and corruption that have wreaked havoc on their lives and livelihood, it also highlighted the need for another Erin Brockovich to take on the corporate behemoth that is responsible for this callous disregard of humanity and destruction of nature.

No, I'll not take the half,
Give me the whole sky! The far-flung earth!
Seas and rivers and mountain avalanches--
All these are mine! I'll accept no less!
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, No, I'll Not Take the Half


Anonymous said...

Erin Brockovich is, in fact, leading a class-action lawsuit against Du Pont Corporation in Pompton Lakes for contaminating the water-table in northern New Jersey.

Anonymous said...

why not:)