The Ramapough Mountain Indians

Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017

The Ramapough Mountain Indians live in the Ramapo (or Ramapough) Mountains in Mahwah and Ringwood, as well as neighboring Hillburn, NY. They have been there for 300 years, tracing their roots back to Munsee Lenape individuals and families who stayed behind when most of their band emigrated north, during a time when British colonists were tightening their hold on New Jersey. Today, they number about 5,000. There is much controversy and misunderstanding surrounding their history and identity, and even now it's hard to get the facts straight. I am trying to avoid going beyond what's told here on the tribe's website.

By retreating from the lowlands where they had traditionally farmed, probably around the Hackensack river, to the steep hollows and rocky ridgetops of the Ramapos, they were able to maintain a large degree of independence and isolation. This area is very rugged, and for a long time there was little reason for white New Jerseyites to travel into these hills.

Currently, members of this community still live on back roads near Stag Hill in the Ramapos, many working in the surrounding towns. Despite the fact that sprawl has engulfed almost all of Bergen County in recent decades, nearly eliminating the concept of a "back road," the Ramapough Mountain Indians have maintained their isolation and their distinctly un-suburban culture. It seems that the ruggedness of the glaciated Highlands still serves as a natural barrier, even though they now have to share their neighborhoods with things like this. Further speculation as to why and how they have remained apart from society inevitably descends into the territory of rumors below the quality and reliability standards of this website.

In seeking recognition as an Indian tribe, they are in political limbo. State politicians are on their side following some litigation regarding soil contamination from the former Ford plant in Mahwah, and the State of NJ has officially recognized them. Federal recognition has been denied, however, due in part to the efforts of some local politicians and none other than Donald Trump, who are afraid that they will put up a casino. Of course, it's federal recognition, not state recognition, that comes with all of the benefits.

Mainstream NJ culture has regarded this small community with fear, distrust and morbid curiosity for centuries. From the farmers who they would periodically trade with, to miners and railroad workers, to suburbanites of the present day, most historical references to them consists or unsavory rumors about their origins and character. Over time, these have grown into local legends, spreading far beyond people who have any contact with the Ramapough people. I first heard of the Ramapough Mountain Indians from my dad, who told me some stories which I now realize to be totally untrue and insulting, if colorful and fascinating. A recent Weird NJ article reporting on these legends generated angry backlash from supporters of the Ramapough Mountain Indians, and Weird NJ had to publish a modified version, complete with a kind of apology and reader responses. An even more recent article interviews their current elected chief, Dwaine Perry and attempts to set the facts straight.

The tribe is also the subject of a long-winded recent New Yorker article, which, in a delicious irony, references an earlier New Yorker article from 1936 that contributed to the disparaging rumors.