Hope Mountain is part of the Ramapo Mountains, a section of the Appalachians that runs up to the Hudson River at Bear Mountain, New York. The town of Ringwood is nestled along its eastern edge, in the northern New Jersey Highlands. Historically there were three main passageways through the mountains, old Native American trails along the Ramapo Clove Pass in New York, the Pequannok Gap, and Pompton and Wanaque Valleys in New Jersey (Lenik, 2011 p.90). This landscape is home to the Ramapough Lunaape people, who today reside in three interconnected communities, with the Turtle Clan in Ringwood, the Wolf Clan in Mahwah, and the Deer Clan in Hillburn, New York. While they are recognized by the state of New Jersey, they do not have federal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). This is by no means an unusual situation. Between 1978-2008, only 16 out of 82 petitioning tribal groups received formal recognition. Only two tribes were officially recognized from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, and controversies that ensued over the BIA’s findings in favor of acknowledgment in a number of cases resulted in its “literally ‘raising the bar’ on groups in fear of being sued over gaming and other sundry sovereignty issues.” (Ouden & O’Brien, 2013, p.20). The history of tribal land ownership is not a simple one. The removal of Indigenous people from their homelands was not limited to a distinct time in American history. Rather, these removal efforts took place over centuries, and included policies that were enacted well into the middle of the 20th century in continuing efforts to dispossess Indian land and weaken tribal sovereignty. Ancestors of the Ramapough experienced this process in the Colonial and early Federal period of our nation’s history; we cannot fully understand the history of this community without placing it in the context of these larger policies.
Storytelling has traditionally been done by community elders. Eldership (elder leadership) plays a large role in Native American communities, but in Ringwood the diseases that have been exacerbated by the poisoning of the land have resulted in a loss of many elders, with few people in the community above the age of 65. This is a drastic change from earlier generations, when it was not unusual to find many elders in their 80s and 90s. According to Stead: “With the loss of the true keepers of the knowledge, the stories are in danger of being lost. It is for this reason that the wounded storytelling must carry on, must be nurtured” (2015, p. 236). This project aims to provide a forum for such storytelling, and to create visual depictions and records of collective and personal experiences, recording what might otherwise be lost.
The story of dumping, contamination, and remediation has been communicated through several documentary films, including Mann v. Ford (2010), American Native (2014), and Troubled Water (2017). “Toxic Legacy,” a throughly researched series in The Record, a North Jersey newspaper, published articles, photographs, and a website that document this story. In addition, EPA and NJDEP (New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection) reports are available to the public through online sources. Much information is available, yet it remains difficult to stitch together information from these sources - which are at times competing and divergent - and make sense of where the overlaps are. According to well-known regional figure and advocate Chuck Stead, PhD., “the Ramapoughs have a long history of being interpreted by another’s agenda,” (2015, p.139) and it is important to include their voices in the telling of this story.