Ringwood, New Jersey is about a 20-minute drive away from Ramapo College and home to generations of Ramapough Indians. The woodsy town was built on the foundations of Native land, but its community continues to die off due to decades of lethal contamination from Ford Motor Company, one of the top automobile manufacturers in America.
Ford built one of the largest auto manufacturing plants in Mahwah in 1955, and by 1967, they turned the backyards of many innocent Ramapoughs into a dumping ground for their cars’ spray paint residue. The materials inside of their excessive dumps included lethal cocktails of toxins, lead, arsenic, paint sludge and other dangerous waste.
The combination of these created dioxins, which are incredibly harmful to humans. Severe health issues they created that were seen in many Ramapoughs and Ringwood citizens include mysterious tumors, weakened immune systems, skin issues, miscarriages and rare, fatal cancers.
As the owner of much of the land, Ford disregarded the surrounding residents and began taking their paint residue to a plant in the town’s woods at night to dispose of their toxic waste until 1971. Though an easy thing for the corporation to do, it was detrimental to the health and wellbeing of the community.
The dumping may have stopped over fifty years ago, but the severe health effects are still visible in the tight-knit community. Even if members chose to finally leave the area, the physical toll the pollutants took on their bodies cannot be undone.
The 2011 HBO documentary “Mann v. Ford” was filmed over five years and follows members of the Ramapough community throughout their major class-action lawsuit against Ford. Community leaders Wayne Mann and Vivian Milligan led their people in the lawsuit, and they worked to hold Ford accountable for their hate crimes against the Natives by poisoning them with no remorse. Ford declined being interviewed in the film, and they ultimately paid off the plaintiffs in the community in a settlement.
A screening of the film and a post-panel discussion was held in Friends Hall on Tuesday evening as part of Native American Heritage Month. The event was co-sponsored by the American Studies Program and Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Compliance.
Dr. Sarah Koenig moderated the panel discussion, which consisted of Vincent Mann, the Turtle Clan Chief of the Ramapough Munsee Lenape Nation and Co-Founder of Three Sisters Farm, Dr. Chuck Stead, environmental educator and current adjunct professor, and Dr. Michael Edelstein, retired Ramapo College professor of environmental psychology. The three panelists met via WebEx and were projected on the Friends Hall big screen.
Several students, professors, faculty and local K-12 educators participated in the Q&A. Many questions focused on how younger students and Ramapo as an institution can be support the Ramapoughs. All three panelists shared that directly involving the community in service opportunities or reading different documents and books surrounding this topic would be a great way to immerse everyone into the rich history.
Chief Mann shared that he is a voice for the Turtle Clan and Ramapough peoples, and he said that all of the people featured in the film are his immediate family. He emphasized that although his community has been through some of the harshest battles, they still persevere and successfully exist on the land that was taken away from them and killing them.
“One of the things that I think is a takeaway from this film, even though we have faced every single obstacle, roadback, trapdoor, even though our community has been decimated, because two thirds of them are not there anymore… is our persistence and our resiliency,” Mann said.
“We have figured out a way to survive inside a world that has been created around us…It’s a horrific, horrific story, but even in there, one of the things that needs to be taken away not just from the movie, but also from this conversation, is our persistence and our resiliency to survive. And not just survive, but thrive.”
Photo by Emily Melvin.