MAHWAH, N.J. – For a span of two hours Thursday night, one person after another approached the Mahwah Council to express support for the Ramapough Lunaape Nation.
Speakers included a professor, a public health nurse, an engineer, and representatives of environmental groups and the tribe itself.
“I don’t know if you recognize the magnitude of the organizations represented in this room tonight,” Carol Gay, president of the New Jersey State Industrial Union Council, told the council.
At issue is the use the tribe’s 13.5 acres of ceremonial land off Halifax Road. In a complaint filed in Bergen County Superior Court, Mahwah is calling for the tribe to cease and desist all use of the property that is in violation of Mahwah’s current zoning ordinance.
Township officials claim the land -- that is in a flood zone -- is being used as a campground, with teepees, tents and canvas cabins, which violates zoning law, but Ramapough Chief Dwaine Perry and supporters says they do not consider the tepees to be permanent structures.
“None of the specific uses the town is trying to prohibit, teepees… and ceremonies have any possibilities of worsening flood events for anybody downstream,” Howard Horowitz, a geography professor at Ramapo College, told the council. “The teepees are actually temporary structures that can be removed in about an hour.”
The meeting got contentious at times, with outbursts from the crowd, boos, and township attorney Brian Chewaskie threatening to close down public comment when a speaker pressured the council for answers about the lawsuit.
“This council in a public forum will neither discuss, respond or address any issue regarding litigation with the Ramapough Mountain Indians… the matter will be addressed through the court system,” Chewaskie said.
Ramapough supporters talked about the value of educational programs and prayer ceremonies that the tribe holds on the land, and argued that as a sovereign tribe they should be allowed to continue activities on their land.
“This land has been used for ceremony historically in both the modern era, early settlement era and pre-contact era. In fact Mahwah is our Munsee indigenous word for meeting place,” Chief Perry told the council.