A Lenape Tribe Finally Wrests Its Sacred Site Back From Developers

Split Rock, with ladder. Photo: Kate Munning of the Land Conservancy of New Jersey

Not long ago, a man named Owl asked if I wanted to accompany him to a sacred site. He picked me up at an NJ Transit train station about 40 miles from Manhattan and drove me down a wooded road near the border of Bergen County, New Jersey, and Rockland County, New York. A lawyer in his early 50s, he wore black cargo pants, a black military vest, and a pair of thick glasses that made him look a little like his namesake. We pulled over near an ordinary-looking suburban home and began walking up an unmarked trail into the woods. About 15 minutes later, we stepped into a clearing scattered with blueberry bushes. There, looming before us, was a spectacular sight. A boulder about the size and shape of a small house sat at the top of the hill. A jagged fissure ran down the middle of it, and two smaller, flat boulders flanked its approach, like columns on either side of the gate to an ancient temple. “This is Split Rock,” Owl said. For thousands of years, maybe more, people who lived in these woods understood it to be a place of power, a portal to other worlds. We stood there for a moment in silence, listening to the birds and, from farther off, the dull roar of traffic on Route 17. “From the Indigenous perspective, these boulders are beings that should be respected, just like the trees, the water, the mountain,” Owl said. “Just now, in this age, the world is coming to the realization that the Earth itself is alive, but Indigenous people never lost that consciousness.”

Owl is a member of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, a community of a few thousand people who have lived in the Ramapo Mountains of New York and New Jersey for longer than anyone can remember. Among their white suburban neighbors, rumors about them have circulated for generations. As recently as 2012, a travel website called Weird NJ alluded to “stories of a degenerate race of people who live an isolated existence from the civilized world.” Outsiders have posited all sorts of theories about their origins, pegging them as the descendants of fugitive slaves or deserters from the Revolutionary War, but the Ramapough regard these tales as insidious lies. They say that they are among the last remaining members of the Ramapough Munsee band of the Lenape, the first inhabitants of the fields and forests that once stretched across what is now New York City and its suburbs. “This land has always been sacred to us,” Owl said.

On a recent Tuesday, Owl and a few dozen other tribe members and supporters gathered in a government building in Rockland County for a hearing that would potentially determine the fate of one of the most sacred parts of that land. If the county legislature were to vote in their favor that evening, the tribe would legally take possession of the Split Rock site, protecting it from the encroaching threat of real-estate development. The surrounding hills were too steep and rocky to have attracted much interest from developers in the past, which helps explain how the Ramapough, some of whom can see the New York City skyline from their front steps, have been able to hold on to their ancestral home for as long as they have. But in recent years, an influx of wealth into the area has driven more and more Ramapough out of their houses and off their land. Now there was a danger that they could lose access to Split Rock itself.

For the time being, the mountain property belonged to the Rockland County Sewer District, which operates a wastewater-treatment plant at the bottom of the hill. The District had decided to auction off the undeveloped 53-acre parcel in 2019, but developers had yet to snatch it up. The Land Conservancy of New Jersey, along with the Ramapough tribe and other partners, had swooped in and asked the District to halt the auction. After conducting an appraisal, the Land Conservancy offered to buy the property for $290,000. The environmentalist group had forged close ties with the Ramapough, and had made arrangements to turn the land over to the tribe if the deal went through. Both the tribe and the environmentalists envisioned an unbroken expanse of woodland eventually stretching from the southern tip of New Jersey all the way up to New York’s Bear Mountain, and thought of the Split Rock land as an important piece of that puzzle. It was now up to the Rockland County Legislature to decide whether to allow the sale to go forward.

At the hearing, Chief Dwaine Perry, the senior leader of the tribe, stepped up to the podium in a gray blazer and a traditional Ramapough Munsee roach, a headdress made primarily from the hair of a deer tail. A Vietnam veteran, he noted that the Lenape had allowed George Washington to use the Ramapo Pass during the Revolutionary War, giving the Continental Army a key strategic advantage over the British. Like all important tribal decisions, this one was likely made at the Split Rock site, he said. Later, I asked if he had spent much time there as a kid. “The only thing I really knew about Split Rock was that the women, the elders, would go up there and do ‘something Indian,’” he said. “At the time, what that meant was, ‘You do not ask.’” He now understood why they had been so careful to keep their ceremonies a secret. In the 1960s, white supremacists burned crosses on the mountain, a deliberate act of desecration, he figured. Less has changed since that time than one might hope. Last year, someone spray-painted an American flag on one of the boulders.

The next speaker was David Johnson, an independent archeologist who said he had studied hundreds of Native American ceremonial sites. Split Rock was “one of the most important” of all of them, he said. A lifelong resident of Poughkeepsie, Johnson spent years investigating the Nazca Lines, a network of ancient geoglyphs in the desert of southern Peru. “Then I came back to New York State and realized I had this in my backyard,” he told me. According to Johnson, Split Rock sat at the center of a complex of similar sites — boulders that had been moved by glaciers and modified, in various ways, by human hands. If you knew how to interpret these formations, you could travel across the region from one site to another as though following a “Rand McNally map of the Native Americans.” The Lenape viewed each of these sites as a portal between the present world, the underground realm of ancestors, and the spiritual world of the sky above, Johnson said. At least once a year, Split Rock’s connection to the celestial world would have been especially clear. On the morning of the winter solstice, according to Owl and other witnesses, sunlight shoots through the shaft in the rock, projecting a laserlike beam onto a nearby boulder.

The possibility of developers claiming the property represented just the latest threat to the Ramapough land and people. As a 2007 report by the state of New Jersey had noted, the Ramapough faced “blatant discrimination” and “significant and direct threats to their physical and economic well-being.” In just the last few years, an oil company had attempted to thread a pair of pipelines through the mountains; a private homeowners association called the Ramapo Hunt & Polo Club had been trying to shut down the tribe’s prayer camp; and the Environmental Protection Agency had announced what the tribe considered a dangerously inadequate plan to clean up the toxic sludge that the Ford Motor Company had dumped on their land back in the ’60s and ’70s. “It is a great stain on the history of the United States what has been done to Native Americans in this country,” Itamar Yeger, a county legislator, said at the hearing. The proposed measure was “one small step that we can take” to “right the wrongs,” he added. The measure was put to a vote, and the legislators, all of them, let out a chorus of ayes.

Afterward, as tribe members mingled outside, some expressed amazement that the hearing had gone so well. Stewart and Joyce DeGroat, cousins, reflected on the long history of real-estate scams that had cheated the Lenape out of nearly all of their land. According to the well-known apocryphal legend, the Lenape sold the island of Manhattan for some trinkets and beads in 1626. “We make some of the best jewelry in the world,” Stewart said, holding out a beaded necklace that Joyce had made for him. “Why would we need beads from you?” Joyce told me that she hoped that the perception of the Ramapough was finally changing. “I know a lot of people look at us like we’re in a cult,” she said. “We’re not a cult, all right? We know who we are.”

Owl regarded the hearing as a hopeful sign for the planet as a whole. “All Indigenous ceremonies are about respecting the environment, and that’s part of what’s important about this decision,” he said. “If we listen to Indigenous people and honor our ancestors, perhaps we can live in a better way than we’re living now.” Back when I visited the site with him, he had guided me through a brief meditation, and then had led me to the edge of an escarpment. In the distance, beyond the gray ribbon of the Hudson, rose the hazy outline of Manhattan. I asked Owl if everything that we were looking at had once been Lenape land. “It still is,” he said.

A Lenape Tribe Wrests Its Sacred Site Back From Developers