By Michael Hill
“We’ve been coming here for over the last quarter of a century,” said Dwaine Perry, president and chief of the Ramapough Lenape Nation.
On less than 14 acres — land returned to the Ramapough Lenape Nation in Mahwah.
What do they do here?
“Well, we pray. This is essentially our church. This is our WaaWikan,” Perry said.
This is a flood zone. It’s also a conservation zone. Perry welcomes that protection but says this land has been abused.
“Our primary purpose is to restore the health of the land and to the trees. As you can see there’s been a lot of, what I think professionals would call mining of the Earth,” he said.
A couple months ago, the Ramapough erected teepees to make a political statement.
“We put it there in solidarity with ‘Standing Rock’ [North Dakota] and also it provides a spiritual symbol, a symbol of serenity with Native America,” Perry said.
The same oil that could have flowed through the Dakota Access Pipeline could pass through here in the planned Pilgrim Pipeline. The Nation and the town are on the same side in opposing it.
But, the temporary teepees make them adversaries after neighbors complained.
There’s no dispute about who owns this land, but there is disagreement on permission on how to use the land.
Mahwah told the Ramapough they needed zoning permits for the temporary teepees and then issued summonses when the Ramapough ignored the town.
“For the most part to me they look like they fall under the category of harassment for foolishness. If you compare apples and oranges you’ll find there’s no equanimity towards how they’re passed up,” Perry said.
They don’t necessarily want them off the land, but they want them to get a proper zoning permit. To that Perry says, “To pray on our own land? I believe one of the complaints was we had to get a permit to assemble.”
“As any other property owner is treated in the township of Mahwah and probably throughout the state of New Jersey, there are zoning violations and code enforcement issues that are here. Simply all they need to do is come forward and get permits for what they’re doing. One is the campground and their right to have it here can be determined simply by acquisition of a simple permit,” said Mahwah Mayor William Laforet.
Seconds later, the chief challenged the mayor.
“Could you just say that clearly,” Perry said. “There is a difference between a teepee on our property and one across the street on that property.”
“No, that’s not what I said. I’m saying, no you’re misunderstanding. What is being said here is that you have a summons or need a permit to operate a campground,” said Laforet.
Perry said, “We’re not operating a campground.”
“That’s the dispute you have,” said the mayor.
“No, that’s your interpretation. Why do we have to be beholden to your misinterpretation? Who told you this was a campground?” asked Perry.
“Chief, I’m not going to debate this here with you,” Laforet said.
The issue is going to court for a judge to decide. In the meantime, the Ramapough get support and visitors who take advantage of the chief’s invitation to pray here.
“It raises the vibration of the land. It raises the vibration of the people and I for one am very grateful,” said Millington resident Debra Falanga.
On this sacred land, the chief says the teepees have multiple uses but the question here is for how long.