Ramapough Indians Win One ... Make That Three Against Sh*tty New Jersey White People
For years, the Ramapough Lenape Nation Tribe, the Township of Mahwah, New Jersey, and a homeowner's association called the Hunt and Polo Club (yes, that's its real name) have been at odds over the Ramapough's right to use their own land.
The land in question is the Ramapough's ancestral land, which they have been on since well before the United States existed. The Ramapough people are descendants of the Munsee people of Lenapehoking, which includes parts of what's now New York and New Jersey. Now, the Ramapough are clustered mostly in Mahwah, New Jersey, Ringwood, New Jersey, and Hillburn, New York.
They are one of the only tribes that has been able to remain on their ancestral land through the systemic displacement of indigenous people by the US government. So, as you would guess, a bunch of white people tried to screw them out of it.
Following years of bullshit from the Township, local residents, and the Hunt and Polo Club, the Ramapough filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in September 2018, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP. As Chief Dwaine Perry of the Ramapough Lenape Nation Tribe said at the time the lawsuit was filed:
With horrifying dismay, I find myself again having to come forward to defend my people, the Ramapough Lenape—the original people of this land. We are once again confronted by systemic racism, wrapped in the old Jim Crow mantra of 'we treat them just like anyone else.' Stealing tribal land through the manipulation of zoning should be a crime, and I ask the elected officials to rise to the ethical standards that your position demands.
At one point, the Township started issuing daily summonses and fines to the Ramapough, eventually issuing over 1,000 individual summonses and demanding over $1.4 million in fines. As described by CCR:
The Township has demanded that the Ramapough remove a stone altar and a prayer circle of logs with masks, as well as attempted to prohibit prayer without any structures as "religious use." The lawsuit alleges that by using the excessive fines and zoning violations, the Township and the neighboring Ramapo Hunt & Polo Club's collective intent is to push the Tribe off what is valuable real estate.
Members of the Mahwah town council and Hunt and Polo Club harassed the Ramapough people for years, filing frivolous lawsuits, making bullshit police reports, and even vandalizing their sacred religious property. False charges that were subsequently dismissed were filed against the tribe's chief, gunshots were filed near Ramapough homes in the middle of the night, and threats were left on their property. Racist and bigoted comments were directed towards them, sometimes during religious ceremonies, including "Fuck you, Mountain N*****s" and, amazingly, "Go back to where you came from." (Sounds like somebody needs to learn some history and then take his own advice?)
The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case supporting the Ramapough, and a few months later the Ramapough settled with the Township of Mahwah. Separate lawsuits between the Ramapough Nation and Hunt and Polo Club in New Jersey state court went to trial last May and the Ramapough won their case, with the judge dismissing the Hunt and Polo Club's complaints.
Among other things, the judge ruled that "[a]ssemblage on property that [the Ramapough] own and praying is no more a violation of the law than" having a party in your own home and that "[t]he Court ... [did] not see any violations of law currently occurring" on Ramapough land. Not to mention,
Most significantly, the Court also found that to the extent that the Polo Club was seeking to prevent the RMI from merely gathering on the Property and praying, it did not have the power to grant such relief where those activities would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.
And that should have been that. But Thomas Powers, an angry member of the Hunt and Polo Club (sorry, I laugh every time I type that name), lost his shit and filed his very own lawsuit, trying to dismantle the Ramapough Nation's settlement with Mahwah.
Last week at a hearing on motions to dismiss filed by the Hunt and Polo Club and the Ramapough Nation, a New Jersey judge dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, preventing Powers from filing his suit again. As Center for Constitutional Rights Bertha Justice Fellow Brittany Thomas said after the hearing:
Mr. Powers raised the same issues a court already considered and rejected after a full trial. Filing yet another lawsuit seeking to infringe on the Ramapough's right to religious practice was pure harassment. The court was right to dismiss the case and prohibit Powers from filing again.
It is beyond horrific that, in the year 2020, this kind of systemic harassment and abuse of Native American communities is still going on. It's good and right that the Ramapough Lenape Nation Tribe won this suit, but the fact that the Ramapough people have been in court for years fighting to exercise their most basic fundamental rights is pretty fucked.