Rockland County Legislators have unanimously adopted a new law to allow the preservation of cultural resources held sacred by the Ramapough Lenape Nation at a place called Split Rock. For some legislators, the new law is only the beginning of an effort to win more protections for the Ramapough and other Indigenous Peoples.
“I’ve been fighting for the state recognition of the Ramapough Lenape for the last 15 years,” Rockland County Legislature Chairman Alden H. Wolfe said. “This has been a struggle that sadly has resulted in inaction by the New York State Legislature. I think it’s appalling and that it’s an insult. I think that the action that we have taken is a small step in doing that which is just and right and allows us to truly see the very proud, noble people of the Ramapough Lenape Nation whom I’m very proud to call my friends.”
Legislator Wolfe is currently working on new legislation that will call on the State Legislature to formally recognize the Ramapough Lenape as a tribe.
Rockland County Executive Ed Day said he looks forward to signing the Local Law which will forever preserve the Split Rock site.
“Safeguarding this sacred ground is the right thing to do for our neighbors, the Ramapough Lenape, and for all people who want to make sure this important place is preserved now and for future generations,” said Day.
The 54.59-acre preservation site is located at the Rockland County Sewer District’s Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Hillburn. Legislators declared it surplus so that the sewer district can sell it. The sewer district no longer has need for the property.
The Land Conservancy of New Jersey, based in Boonton, has submitted a request to purchase the property. The Legislature has authorized the County Executive, on behalf of the Sewer District, to move forward with the sale for no less than $290,000. Municipal State Law required the County to obtain a fair market appraisal and to sell the property for not less than that amount.
“The United States has and continues to be a great experiment in freedom and democracy,” Legislator Itamar Yeger said. “It is in my estimation as a first-generation American, a great stain upon the history of the United States what has been done to Native Americans in this country. As we – non-natives – fulfilled our manifest destiny to move from the East Coast all the way to the West, we treated the land like it was empty when in fact it was not. It was owned by people other than ourselves.”
He pointed out that even today, a substantial number of Native Americans live in poverty, and are forced to endure health, housing and educational challenges that go unmet.
“This is one small step that we can take,” Legislator Yeger said. “I hope that ultimately it leads to one large step for the United States as a whole in beginning to and ultimately completing the task of righting the wrongs that were done to Native Americans.”
The Ramapough consider the Split Rock area to be sacred and an independent archeologist, David Johnson, told legislators during a public hearing on the new law that he has seen hundreds of Native American sacred and ceremonial stone landscapes and studied many of their most sacred mountains and hills throughout the northern Western Hemisphere. Johnson said he has collaborated with First Nations across the U.S., the federal government, state and local agencies, and others.
“Of all the sites I’ve seen, one of the most important physical sites that is basically intact is Split Rock mountain,” Johnson said. “When I got up there, we found over 40 significant stone features still intact. It is an amazing site and of extreme importance not only to the local Native American cultural and spiritual heritage, but for all Native Americans across the United States.”
Legislators Toney Earl and Charles Falciglia are among those in County government who have made the difficult hike to the top of Split Rock, guided by members of the Ramapough Lenape. The tribe refers to the actual split rock at the top of the mountain as “Tahetaweew,” the gate that opens.
“We’re so grateful to Legislators Alden Wolfe, Toney Earl, Harriet Cornell, Phil Soskin and all of the legislators and the County Executive because they’ve been so supportive of us,” Ramapough Lenape Nation Chief Dwaine Perry said.
During the public hearing on the law, Chief Perry spoke of the significant contributions the Lenape have made to America, including withdrawing from the Iroquois Confederacy to support the Rebels during the Revolutionary War. He said iron deposits that came from the Ramapough’s land were used to forge the links in the chain stretched across the Hudson River to impede the British Navy, to make cannon balls for the war, and in the creation of the U.S. Capitol dome.
He said it was at Split Rock where the decision was made to allow the Rebels to use the Ramapough Mountain Pass, which also cut off a British supply route, and where the leadership of tribes met to settle disputes. In 1964, it became a popular site to burn crosses and then it became a favorite place to bust beer bottles, Chief Perry said.
“Today we are experiencing a renaissance of humanity and the beginning of a return from quiet genocide, of which the proof is the beauty of this moment here and now,” Chief Perry said. “We are all and will truly benefit – the county, the state and the Ramapough, when this sacred trust may be once returned to those from which it came.”