“ But if there was early Indian ancestry, it would probably have been the Lenni-Lenape or Delaware Indians indigenous to the region rather than the Tuscarora, as the folk legend has it. Also it probably could not have involved more than one or two individuals or there would have been more documentary evidence.”
- David Cohen
David Cohen’s 1974 monograph The Ramapo Mountain People, published by Rutgers University Press, is worth discussing at length here because, although it is nearly five decades old, it continues to impact how people perceive the Ramapough today. Cohen’s book is part of a trend the Ramapough have encountered wherein outsiders doubt their history and decide on their own who the Ramapough are (and are not). Their Native American ancestry has been challenged in many ways; the Jackson Whites legend discussed previously is just one example. Although Cohen sought to discredit the Jackson White myth and the attendant derogatory portrayals, his book contributed to another kind of dispossession – the dispossession of identity.
The effect on the Ramapough in New Jersey has been devastating, to say the least. No sociological or psychological studies have been done about the impacts of the constant and unending questioning of their identity, but these become clear in conversation with the community. Chief Vincent Mann made these statements at a conference organized by the New Jersey Historical Commission in 2021 on a panel titled “What the Evidence Reveals – The Contested Terrain of Ramapough Recognition,” as he addressed the impact of Cohen’s book:
Chief Vincent Mann addresses the impact of scholars who have sought to discredit the Ramapough at the 2021 NJ HIstory Conference.
"Come on, this is not an academic exercise. This is a real-life exercise with real-life consequences..." - Chief Mann
“…extremely detailed, professional-level historical research that was done years ago. (See David Cohen, The Ramapo Mountain People, Rutgers University Press, 1974). David Cohen provided thorough, painstaking research that the Ramapo Mountain communities were founded in the seventeenth-century by Afro-Dutch people. The first settlers were actually free people of color (the mixed-race children of Dutch men by African woman), and thus there is a remarkably clear paper trail even at the earliest stages, right down to genealogical records.”
"...In the 1970s and 80s— partly in response to Cohen’s book-- some local community people laid claim to a Lenape tribal identity (apparently preferring that to a Black ancestry). Their claim that they were the last remaining Lenape in Jersey eventually caused so much pain and anger to the Lenape (now called the Delaware Tribe of Indians), who had in fact held together as a tribe and thus been forced to migrate out of the state..."
Chief Vincent Mann addresses the impact of scholars who have sought to discredit the Ramapough. "That is what I would like to put forth, you know, people who have written these documents and written books, like David Cohen's, has done a great injustice to the Indigenous people who above all things, figured out, how to survive here in our homeland."
Cohen is still actively writing about the Ramapough and other Native groups that he states are making false claims. The papers that he continues to publish, without peer review, would otherwise be harmless, if not for the fact that other groups are currently using his work to discredit the Ramapough by questioning their ancestry and making the claim that they are “fake Indians.” One Facebook group dedicated to discounting the Ramapough uses the cover of Cohen’s book as their profile picture and shares Cohen’s papers and YouTube videos on their page. Numerous papers written by Cohen were shared in 2021, as well as an image of one of the family trees Cohen created for his original research. These groups conflate the efforts of the Ramapough at cultural restoration and knowledge recovery with those who have been called “pretendians” and claim Native ancestry without evidence of continued inhabitation and cultural cohesion. Neither of these are true in the case of the Ramapough, as indicated by the sources referenced in the History section, as well as the supporting documents written by historians, genealogists, and public officials.
Another group that has emerged recently is known by the acronym CPAIN, or “Corporations Posing as Indigenous Nations.” They appear to be led by Daniel StrongWalker Thomas of the Delaware Nation – a federally recognized Lenape group now located in Oklahoma.
"The forced removal of the Lenape People from Lenapehoking, combined with continued exclusion from contemporary events and happenings, has resulted in various Corporations Posing as Indigenous Nations (CPAIN) groups seizing claim to Lenape history, spirituality and culture…These organizations vary in structure, sophistication, stated purpose, and funding, yet all mask their theft within a robe of cultural preservation and unproven indigenous lineage. If a ‘pretendian' is an individual who falsely claims indigenous lineage, than CPAIN is what happens when a group of them decide to form a corporation, usually a non-profit, and pass it off to the public as a tribe."
The uncomfortable and unsettling narrative that emerges from these disputes is the tremendous fractures that settler colonialism in the United States has caused between and within different Native American groups. Native Americans have long had to “prove” who they are in order to hang on to land and resources that are becoming more and more scarce. These conflicts are reported here not to vilify any one group. Instead, we must understand that these conflicts stem from the problematic relationship with the US government. As Lenape groups fled from New Jersey they were forced to migrate multiple times, as groups settled in different parts of North America. The presence of state-recognized Lenape descendent tribes in the homeland of Lenapehoking complicates their own claims on the territory. These communities are responding as they feel they must in order to survive and have access to the few and inadequate resources they have been granted by our nation’s governing structures. Nonetheless, the Ramapough do have the support of many Native nations, including the Stockbridge Munsee and the Munsee Delaware Nation, both originally from Lenapehoking.