Ramapough Tribe Rallies To Fight For 'Right To Worship'
Tribe cited for building Halifax Rd. Longhouse without permit; hearing postponed one month
About 200 members and supporters of the Ramapough-Lenape Nation chanted in solidarity outside Mahwah’s town hall Tuesday night after the hearing of a municipal court case against the Indian tribe was postponed 30 days.
According to the Ramapough’s attorney George Cotz, Mahwah’s zoning department cited the tribe in October for building a religious long house on its property without the proper permits. The crowd gathered to face the charge to defend what they felt was unfair treatment, he said.
“We are talking about the rights of a racial and religious minority to worship how and where they want to,” Cotz said Tuesday night.
The case was postponed 30 days by municipal Judge Anthony Gianni, who said the new date should be a Thursday afternoon, and a special court session to handle this case, because “there is such an interest in it.” Tuesday night numerous other regularly-scheduled cases were heard.
The township is trying to halt the construction of a Ramapough-Lenape ceremonial longhouse until the tribe gets the proper approvals and permits it needs, Mahwah Property Maintenance Officer and Zoning Inspector Tom Mulvey said last month.
The tribe is in the middle of building a spiritual longhouse made of logs, tree trunks and branches on its 14-acre open property on Halifax Road.
“This land is very important to us. It is used for religious purposes,” Assistant Tribal Chief Vinny Mann, who said that the logs used to build the house are from trees that have naturally fallen down, not ones that have been cut, said.
“I am empathize with what they are trying to accomplish there, but that doesn’t mean they do not need certain things in order before they build a structure on the land,” Mulvey told Patch last month. According to the inspector, the land on Halifax is in either a floodplain or a flood way, so the tribe needs approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection before it can begin building anything on it, longhouses included.
“With the last storm, there was three or four feet of water in the area, so the DEP needs to approve it before we can allow anything,” he said. After DEP approval, the tribe would also need to apply for a zoning permit and a building permit from the township before they could officially begin building, Mulvey said.
Mann argues that since they are not putting together a watertight building, water would be able to flow freely through the house in the event of a flood, and he is hoping the DEP will waive the requirement, or approve the project, based on that.
“We put these poles in the ground a year ago, and now we want to finally move forward with this project,” Mann said. “This is where we pray and we believe we should have the right to do that.” Mann said the Ramapoughs applied for a permit from the town, but were “flat out denied” without the DEP approval. Mann said the tribe has applied for DEP approval, and is currently waiting for it.
According to Mulvey, “we have to make sure it’s in compliance with the DEP before we can approve anything.” The inspector admits that approval from the state on a project like this often takes “a long time,” so anyone planning on building in a floodplain should “plan in advance.”
Mann says the carver they asked to do the work, an Airmont man named Joseph Liporace, Jr., “is carving spiritual images into what’s standing already.”
Liporace said he is “more than honored” to be etching the traditional msiingw (pronounced “men-sing”) carvings. Though not of Native American decent, or a carpenter by trade, Liporace said he carves figurines as a hobby.
“I’m not getting paid for this work, I just see it as a once in a lifetime honor. And, honestly, I didn’t really know how to make these carvings, but I prayed for guidance and it just flowed through my hands. I have no idea how it happened, but I am really enjoying it,” he said.
The tribe was planning Tuesday night to replicate its big presence at its next court appearance.
“We are trying to resolve things with the township,” Cotz said, “but it is not a simple question.”