Despite the rainy weather, a group of Ramapo students spent Monday cleaning up dumping sites on Stag Hill, home of the local Ramapough Indians. Led by MEVO, or Mahwah Environmental Volunteers Organization, the cleanup took place in honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. While the second Monday of October has been known as Columbus Day since 1971, there is a growing push to replace the holiday with one honoring the history and culture of America’s indigenous peoples.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day began in Berkeley, California in 1992 and spread to Santa Cruz, California in 1994, but it was not until 2014 when it began to be adopted on a more widespread basis in cities across America. In 2017, 23 towns and counties have voted to rename the day, including Austin, Texas, Nashville, Tennessee and Los Angeles.
“It’s very important to get rid of Columbus Day, to get rid of any celebration of Columbus because he was not a hero,” Mahtowin Munro, the lead organizer for Indigenous Peoples’ Day Massachusetts, said to Al Jazeera.
However, others see Columbus Day as celebrating America’s history and not how the native people were treated.
“The point is not to excuse the worst that happened, but to understand it. And to see that it is not the essence of Columbus, but rather part of the times. With all that, there are reasons to celebrate Columbus Day,” wrote Fox News columnist Steven Kurtz.
Regardless of what one decides to call the second Monday in October, Ramapo students spent it helping the local natives. For more than 50 years, large companies and contractors have been illegally dumping their garbage and waste in large sites on Stag Hill rather than paying to have it disposed of.
In 2006, the Ramapough Mountain Indian Tribe filed a lawsuit against the Ford Motor Plant in Mahwah for dumping thousands of gallons of toxic paint into the area, contaminating the land and water.
Despite having been closed since 1980, the effects of it have been long-lasting. In their series “Toxic Legacy” investigating the Ford Motor Plant’s illegal dumping, The Record reported that the pollution is most likely responsible for the lead poisoning and rare forms of cancer within communities.
In 2011, MEVO partnered with the Ramapough Lunaape Nation in attempts to help fight this. They are holding cleanups, but it is difficult to counteract half a century’s worth of dumping and pollution. Their long-term goals include getting the town, county and state to hold perpetrators more accountable, ensuring the safety of the water and testing the soil.
Recent Ramapo graduate Allie Grinkevich, the executive assistant at MEVO, was out in the woods cleaning up with students.
“During my first experience cleaning up Stag Hill, I went over to pick up a bottle. Underneath of that was another bottle, under that another and I was very quickly digging a big hole and finding all these bottles,” said Grinkevich.
That was one of the main challenges students faced while cleaning up Stag Hill. The companies dumping their waste will sometimes bury it to hide it and after so long, trees and plants have grown around them. Digging waste out from under the roots of bushes proved challenging, but oftentimes there were even more buried beneath the top layer.
Over the course of the day, more than 100 tires were pulled out of the woods. Students and other volunteers organized into what MEVO calls a “tire line.” Tire lines are long lines of people about five feet apart used to roll the tires along the path and get them to a point where it is easier for a truck to come pick them up later.
This task was made much harder by the giant mud puddles on all the trails. However, students rallied around the sense of teamwork brought about by completing the daunting task together.
“The tire line was pretty intense,” said senior Nicole Wert. “It was crazy to see how many people illegally dump on Stag Hill. Even though we were working in the pouring down rain, it still felt great to give back to the community.”
Along with the tires, dozens of oversized trash bags of other kinds of dumping were picked up. Students found everything from car parts and bottles to lawn mowers and bed frames. There was even an entire rusted car, which Grinkevich suggested was abandoned after being illegally sold for its engine.
In just one day, Ramapo students managed to pull out hundreds of pieces of illegally dumped materials, but that was just one day. In six years, more than 450,000 pounds of waste have been removed from the area, including 5,000 tires. Grinkevich said that they still find new dumping sites at least once a month.
“I think it was a great idea because it shows that even in a suburban area like Mahwah there’s still a problem with dumping,” said senior Colin Brence, who led the service trip through the CCEC. “It was a great way to help out our American Indians who deal with this problem on a daily basis and have been for decades.”