The Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Compliance (EDIC) invited Jeffery Fountain, a tribal member of the Ramapough Munsee-Lenape Nation, to speak about oral history as part of its programming for Native American Heritage Month. Fountain, a member of the Deer Clan located in Hilburn, New York, about 3 miles from Mahwah, spoke in particular about the doctrine of discovery, nature, connection to the Creator, resilience and love.
“When we started off way back when, we were the caretakers of eastern Connecticut all the way down to the Raritan River in New Jersey and parts of Albany. That’s quite a lot of land. That’s quite a lot of loss,” he said.
As Fountain explained it, the doctrine of discovery is a European idea that Pope Alexander VI devised in 1455. The doctrine of discovery was the belief that any land in the New World was considered undiscovered land. Once that land was discovered, it would belong to the Europeans. The first recorded contact with the Native people was in 1524. Fountain said the Native people were here long before the doctrine of discovery, calling it a farce.
“There’s no doubt there was life and you can’t discover something that’s already here,” he said. 555 years later, the United Nations declared the doctrine of discovery as a violation of Indigenous people’s human rights.
He expressed that since the beginning, the Ramapough people have learned to embrace one another and live together peacefully even as tribes merged together when they were pushed toward the mountains.
“We walk, we talk, we have big hearts, very big hearts. We learn to help one another, share with one another and do all of those things that a human should do,” he said.
Fountain also described the Ramapough Munsee-Lenape Nation as “caretakers,” spending time in nature and taking care of the Earth the way the Creator intended. His people have made the Ramapo Mountains their home and consider it a “home base,” a place you always come back to even as you grow up and move on. He also said the Ramapough Munsee-Lenape people will not be erased because “you can’t erase nature [and they] are nature.”
“Growing up, we’ve had a long hard way because somehow everyone doesn’t like the fact that people can be people, one with one another regardless of your race, your attitudes, your wealth, your character, anything,” he said.
On the topic of family and stories, he said the concept of family is different for Native people. For them, family is “vast and extending because that’s how [they] see life.” Family includes immediate family, grandparents on both sides, siblings of grandparents and the many generations that came before you. Fountain said elders are important because that is where our stories come from. He said that people can find stories from their elders because stories come from life experiences and are passed on.
“Everybody has a story that keeps them living. We’ve learned to tell our stories and pass them on. That’s one way we can all get together now,” he said. In the past, Mahwah was a place where different tribes and clans gathered to pass on information and share stories with each other. The word “Mahwah” means “meeting place” to the Ramapough Munsee-Lenape people.
“We’re good for stories,” he continued. “We’re good for telling jokes, we’re good for having fun with each other and even making stories up to make the laughter stay on. We’ve learned to live in love and have joy out of delight…”
He said his main concern with today is making people see they are all connected. He brought up the idea of synchronicity, connecting it to a previous point he made about everything being connected in a big circle. Synchronicity connects everyone, and the circle brings everyone back to nature, he said.
The event ended with a Q&A session where Fountain’s wife Cindy answered some questions. Cindy is a traditional practicing shaman and was raised in the woods. Earlier in the discussion, Fountain mentioned that his wife grew up with her grandparents listening to, watching and observing nature. During the Q&A, she expressed the importance of learning one another’s culture and how we have to “learn to weave our lives together.”
Photo by Matthew Wikfors.