Throughout November, Ramapo College has been celebrating Native American heritage and honoring the rich culture and influences Native Americans have had on the country and at the College. Native American Heritage Month has allowed the campus community to honor the profound impact Native Americans have had throughout history, as well as educate themselves on the discrimination Native Americans continuously face.
With Native American Ancestry Month coming to an end, the Office of Equity and Diversity Programs held a closing luncheon Tuesday to commemorate the month’s importance.
MC Kaitlyn Welton, a member of Professor Neriko Doerr's world cultures class, first introduced Aaron DeGroat, the Director of Communications for the Ramapough Lenape Nation, to kick off the celebration. DeGroat began by showing a video of the Ramapough Mountain Drummers and the group’s native steppers performing at the New Jersey Folk Festival.
The annual festival takes places in the spring, and features performances by the area’s three tribal groups: the Ramapough Lenape, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape and the Powhatan.
“That festival is a really unique opportunity for people to find out more about our customs,” DeGroat said. “It’s a great exchange of culture and backgrounds.”
DeGroat took the time to speak to guests about the Ramapough Lenape Nation, highlighting specifically the discrimination the group faces regularly. The first issue DeGroat brought up regarded the book by David Steven Cohen, “The Ramapough Mountain People,” which Cohen described as “complete, utter nonsense.”
DeGroat explained that while Cohen was writing the book, Cohen would come to their church, though none of the members knew what his real intentions were.
“He would go to our houses after church, when some would be liquored up or in altered states, and he would take down whatever stories were told, augment them, and it would be published as a book,” said DeGroat.
DeGroat states that he and his people continuously have to fight the discrimination this book promoted, such as being categorized as “Jackson whites” and not Native Americans by non natives.
“This book became the Bible for people who weren’t Native American,” said DeGroat. “People who were not natives would hold this book up as Bible and try to dispute our own heritage.”
DeGroat then discussed the discrimination the Ramapough Mountain Indian Tribe have have endured. He specifically cited the injustices the occuring in Ringwood, NJ, which used to be home to many Ramapough people. He explained that Mahwah’s Ford plant used to dump sludge and toxic waste into Ringwood, NJ, which proved to be devastating to the health of the people in the area.
“As a result, not many of us are left in Ringwood right now,” said DeGroat.
DeGoat also exposed the institutional discrimination the Ramapough people face from the town of Mahwah, stating that the town of Mahwah is taking away the Ramapough people’s right to assemble and pray.
DeGroat explained that in 1995, the Ramapough people were given land for their tribe to meet. He stated that one of their customs is to build a stone altar, which the people of the community assemble by placing a boulder on the alter each time they visit after they “speak to the creator.”
DeGroat stated, however, that the town is discouraging them from continuing this practice and threatening to dismantle the altar.
Additionally, DeGroat explained that the town of Mahwah is fining them for assembling to pray on their land. He stated that they have accumulated over a million dollars worth of fines, and DeGroat believes the town is attempting to get the Ramapough people to close their lease.
“This is something that eats at all of us because it’s a constitutional right, the right to assemble,” said DeGroat.
DeGroat ended his speech by calling on guests to take action in the community and help the Ramapough people retain their right to gather and pray. He explained that Mahwah holds mayor and council meetings monthly, where citizens can speak at an open forum, and encouraged guests to go and speak up for the Ramapough community.
“There’s strength in unity,” said DeGroat.
Elsu Mathew, another student from Professor Doerr's class, followed DeGroat’s speech, and concluded the luncheon by showcasing her video presentation from the class on Maya mam life in the United States. Mathew worked with the Grupo Cajola organization to interview two mam people from the town of Cajola in Guatemala.
The interview revealed the harsh conditions Maya mam people faced in their country, and how the discrimination they dealt with – and continue to face – when they migrated to the United States in pursuit of a better life.
“It was really beautiful to hear what they had to say,” said Mathew.
Both DeGoat and Mathew emphasized the need for unity and empathy, challenging guests to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They stressed that everyone shares the same dreams and desires, and to offer support when they can.
“Remember, we are you,” said DeGroat.
To view Mathew’s presentation, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxcUp10ELYQ
To view the Ramapough Lunaape Nation Performance at the New Jersey Folk Festival 2018, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hH71UsqR-q0