Ramapough Turtle Clan Hosts Event on Current Issues

Photo by Erica Meline

Ramapo College is built on the historic land of the Ramapough people. Despite this, many students and people overlook Native Americans and fail to recognize the enormous problems these people face. On Wednesday, Ramapo held a presentation by the Ramapough Turtle Clan to discuss issues regarding health care and toxic exposure.

The first person to speak was professor of history Dr. Carter Meyer. Meyer gave an overview about how history has perpetuated stereotypes about Native Americans. She displayed historic paintings such as Johannes’s “America,” Benjamin West’s “Captain David Hill” and John Gast’s “American Progress.” Meyers pointed out that these paintings harbor attitudes of superiority among white Americans and have a distinct theme of savagery vs. civilization.

“These images have become a kind of toxic exposure for Indians,” Meyer stated.

The stereotypes that these images helped generate foreshadowed years of oppression as is evident through instances like the Trail of Tears and American Indian boarding schools. Distasteful images, however, continued to persist in later years with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West shows of the late 1800s. Cody exploited the stereotypes plagued upon Native Americans to generate a thrilling show, ordering the Native American performers to act like savages.

“The more merciless they were, the more tickets he would sell,” Meyers said.

Cody’s performance pioneered the American Western film genre, which once again aided in the denigration and the defamation of Native Americans. Meyers provided examples in such as "Stagecoach" and "Dances with Wolves," in which the Native Americans “existed only to wreak havoc on white civilization.”

Chief Vincent “Eagle Spirit” Mann of the Turtle Clan spoke next, providing the audience with a history of treatment toward Native Americans by western civilization. He first spoke on American Indian boarding schools.

Mann stated, “They stripped everything that we were doing” to Americanize them. Entrepreneur like the Fords and Rockefellers created groups to deal with the “unwanted” Native Americans, as most people fostered the misconception that Native Americans were not just uncivilized, but lazy as well. Many associated them with merely basket weaving and fishing, incapable of keeping up with American productivity and ambition. Therefore, to deal with the Native Americans, people came up with ways to get rid of the Ramapough people.

“One of the most popular was gas chambers,” Mann stated. Though this was met with public outcry and it never did end up happening, the Ramapough people continued to be victimized by other means.

One of the biggest threats to Native Americans is toxic waste. Henry Ford’s company specifically targeted the Ramapough people, as he purchased 900 acres in Ringwood, right in the middle of the Turtle Tribe. Though the Native Americans could stay, millions of pounds of toxic paint got dumped on their land and the ramifications of this have been devastating for the Ramapough people. Since 1965, their population has plummeted from over 1000 people to under 300 and these deaths continue to pile up.

“Since July we have buried 17 or 18 Turtle Clan members,” Mann stated, continuing, “Every single time I do that a part of me leaves. Eventually so much of me will leave that it will be my turn.”

The next person to speak was Dr. Judith Zelikoff, a toxicologist at New York University School of Medicine. Zelikoff spoke about the health environment concerns survey of 2016 that NYU partnered with the Ramapough Turtle Clan to create. The survey’s mission was to get a better understanding of the health effects caused by the toxic dumping of paint sludge in the area and to better gauge the concerns of the community.

Zelikoff discussed the various toxicants the paint sludge contained, including heavy metals like lead, arsenic, chromium and nickel, as well as volatile organic compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls and phthalates. The survey ran from December 2015 to October 2016, with 185 total surveys collected. The survey generated a predominately female and elderly response and 94 of the 185 self-identified as Native American. The survey concluded that about 47.6 percent lived on or near a Superfund Site and that 72 percent have played near contaminated waste.

They also revealed that responders’ primary concern is water quality, especially regarding contamination. Zelikoff emphasized at the end of the presentation that these surveys rely on volunteers and that if students are interested, they should contact Professor Kathleen Moskin.

Ramapough Elder Shirley Van Dunk spoke next. Van Dunk gave personal insight on life as a Native American in the United States. She discussed how she grew up in a time when everyone worked for the Hewitts, an influential family in the town, who “ran Ringwood like a plantation.” The Hewitts also provided schooling, but Van Dunk emphasized that it was extremely difficult.

“It was never easy for our people,” said Van Dunk.

She went on to explain how her teacher would berate the students, telling them that they would never amount to anything and wind up just like their parents. Van Dunk used this hate, however, as motivation, and ended up being the first to graduate from high school.

The discrimination, however, was not exclusive to the school grounds. She endured prejudice throughout her life, whether it be employers not paying her or people restricting her right to own a house.

“Thank god I never had an inferiority complex,” Van Dunk said, continuing, “I’m just as good as anyone, and if you tell me any different, I’m ready to tell you.”

The last person to speak was Melissa DeLeon-Milligan, Community Outreach Coordinator at Good Shepherd. Good Shepherd is a church that is the “heartbeat of the community” of the Ramapough people. With health being such a prominent issue for Native Americans presently, DeLeon-Milligan launched programs last year with 10 graduating nursing students to promote healthy living in the community. These programs include fitness groups, mother groups and day care programs for children.

DeLeon-Milligan concluded by stating, “It’s so easy to fall in love with this tribe of people. I am so proud to be part of that.”