Seeding a Native Future Despite a Toxic Past: Chief Vincent Mann of the Ramapough Lenape Turtle Clan

Editor’s note: NESAWG’s 2019 It Takes a Region conference included an opening blessing and plenary talk by Chief Vincent Mann of the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, who live in the Ramapo mountains in Northern New Jersey near where the conference was held. We’ll be donating 25% of all donations raised through the end of 2019 to help the Turtle Clan purchase tools and supplies for their farm. Please give generously. Here is a message from Chief Mann directly:

We the peoples of the Ramapough Lenape Nation Turtle Clan are seeking assistance in creating a farm which will not only be utilized for sustenance, but also for educating our children and families in the traditional ways of our ancestors. Recovering our cultural ways and food sovereignty is of the highest importance. Due to the toxic waste that has been disposed of upon our community in Ringwood, NJ, we have lost the ability to hunt clean game animals and to gather traditional wild edibles as well as having loss the knowledge of our healing plants, and with that, the loss of language that is associated with the gathering of them.

It's our hope that through providing this resource, that our people will find it as a source of food sovereignty as well as an opportunity to heal through cultural regeneration.....


Chief Mann


The rest of what follows here is the transcript of an interview between NESAWG and Chief Mann.


What is the environmental situation for the Turtle Clan?

Back in the mid-60s Ford Motor company bought the area which we call home. At the time there were approximately 1100 Clan members living there. They bought it for executive housing and a self-contained community for the motor plant in Mahwah, NJ. When they lost their bid to do that, almost immediately, they started to dump toxic waste from the plant into our community, onto the land, on the roads, in the brooks, in the mines. Unbeknownst to us - we didn’t know what that was and we didn’t have a voice. That dumping led to fires that raged on for weeks on end. At one time you could see the orange glow of the fires from Manhattan. Yet, the state, or the town, or the county, nor the federal government came to get our people out of there. They actually stayed there through that whole time. Some houses were probably less than 100 yards from the fires, which when they burned created dioxins, Agent Orange. Our people were getting sick and dying, and finally we started teaching out trying to find answers.

That led to where our people live being listed as a Superfund site in the 1980s. In 1994 for the site was delisted and the EPA stated all the lands were clean. Jan Barry from The Record, an environmental investigative reporter, began a multi-part investigative series called Toxic Legacy. Through his championing of our fight, and others who have helped us along, it took 12 years to get the site relisted as a Superfund site because it wasn’t clean. In the documentary, Jan vs. Ford, one of the EPA people says “Well how does anybody expect us to know where it all was, even the residents don’t know where it all was.” Like it was some responsibility of ours to keep track of Ford’s dumping.

Ford got away with this because of the town of Ringwood actually made a profit on the dumping. The town had sent a letter to Ford in the 60s asking that all the waste be brought there and disposed of, and the town created a Ringwood Solid Waste Authority. The town was making money through the illegal toxic dumping of chemicals on our community, and what it amounts to, on us. When we were delisted we were essentially given a death sentence, being told it was safe to go back out and hunt, and fish, and live there. 

Even after getting relisted as a Superfund site there isn’t assistance from the state, the town, or the federal government for the people, they are just focused on capping or whatever else to deal with the chemicals. The only people we have to turn to would be the court system, and we don’t have the funds for that litigation, or the federal government. So, basically the Turtle Clan continues to live and die in a Superfund site that one part of it contained chemicals that were so toxic after going through the furnace twice in Michigan that they called the EPA and said you need to get all your workers out of there, and the EPA did but didn’t even acknowledge this information to the Turtle Clan until a month later - and our people were never removed or given the option to move out of there collectively. Our people still pay taxes to the town on our houses that have zero value, a lot of our people are on the welfare system of Medicaid because they’ve gotten sick and can’t work. Us not having a voice or being able to do anything is partly because we don’t have federal recognition as a tribe, but you would think that being a state-recognized tribe and the mere fact that we are human beings living in the state of NJ that somebody would come and try to rescue us. That still hasn’t happened. It’s been 50 years. There are 300 people living on the site but the larger Turtle Clan community in surrounding towns is closer to 1500 people, and those who moved out are the younger people who wanted to leave so give their kids a better chance. 

That’s where we are right now, except they are trying to leave all this stuff in place and cap it, and because of the overwhelming amount of comments that came in before the deadline in July, the decision by federal court was to postpone the decision on the capping. EPA has now postponed it even further, and we don’t know what that is about because they don’t tell us anything even though we are a stakeholder. I’m currently on a path to hold them accountable, fighting for relocation of our community to the other side of Tranquility Ridge, and creating this Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm where we can grow our traditional foods without being impacted by what has happened to the land.

There are a lot of things that can be done to give our people a chance to heal. Those people who are my age, the elders, even some of the younger people, they are already marked. The only thing that would benefit them would be knowing that their children’s children’s children, seven generations out, that once those switches start to get turned off inside of us that we will be able to live healthy long lives again. Which we don’t have right now, that has been stripped from us. We shouldn’t have to lay to rest a 1 month old and a 10 month old because of rare cancers. 

The vision for the future

The land on the other side of Tranquility Ridge was once called Beech Farm and is now owned by the county. They have 2500-4500 acres of land and it is an area our people could move to. It was purchased with Green Acres money which means it would need to go through the legislature to allow that land to be worked around. We really need about 1000 acres to make up for the 48 homes that are there now, but it was 80 houses, and the children and everybody else who moved away all should be afforded the ability to come back and be one community again. 

My other fight about that is that it needs to be land put into a nonprofit so there are no taxes applied to them. Everybody can pay the same amount, whether it's a one level house or more, we want thermal heating and cooling with green technologies, using composting systems that can handle three or four houses together, so this is an opportunity for the federal government and state of NJ to create a model for other communities across the country, especially Indigenous communities, to help us heal as well as mother earth. We need a community center with cultural programs like language or elder meals, to create a garden right there, and use the fees people are putting into the community every month to pay tribal members to take care of grounds, change light bulbs, help fix things, be workers at the community center. These are not things that are difficult or beyond the means of collectiveness. Help us regain our hope in society, America, and each other.

Because we don’t have access to land right now, I’ve gone through the NJ Commission for Native Affairs to identify parcels of land in Vernon, NJ that are owned by the state and near the historic landmark at Blackcreek. That land has been farmed by our ancestors, and then by the colonists, and now by Americans. The state leases it, and we’re ok with that, we’d just like to lease it for 99 years for a dollar a year, to grow our traditional foods. We’d like to use this to grow cottage industry to help fund our tribal government and restore our cultural ways.

There are a lot of things that can be done to give our people a chance to heal. 

There’s also a darker future if we don’t act. We sit at the head of a reservoir that feeds 6 million people with water a day. What happens if we have an earthquake, because we are on the Ramapough fault, and that cracks one of the mines and that water feeds into groundwater where people are getting their drinking water and all of the sudden you’re going to have a national disaster of epic proportions because where is water for 6 million people going to come from? 


How people can help

Write to NJ state representatives and federal representatives asking them to administer reparations to help us and heal our communities and mother earth!

Right now, we need money to help make them listen to us. We have a single pro bono lawyer, she has donated millions of dollars, and if we had a way to support that litigation we can put this fight right on their doorstep. A judge can force the state and town to be accountable for what they have done. When asked about what permit they issued in 1973, sitting in front of a judge, what are they going to say? If we get to that point then we can jump across a couple of little brooks and then think about how we’re going to cross the bigger river.

It doesn’t even have to get that far, right? It can come in the form of reparations. Some of that can be land and part of that can be partnering with the United States, with HUD and whoever else. It could be something as simple as adding a .5 cent tax on gasoline or beer or cigarettes, maybe even only a couple times of year to raise the money to be supportive of the missions that are at hand.

There are definitely things that can be done and are not far-fetched. We don’t have to put it in court for thirty years. We don’t have to stumble on our feet because we don’t have 50k to give to the lawyer to make it happen in a short period of time. The town, state, and federal government can act now.