Tribe fights for place in history


Ramapough: Members who claim to be descendants of the Delaware Indians want federal recognition -- and benefits -- a step opposed by New Jersey gaming interests.

July 17, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

MAHWAH, N.J. -- Talk about an undesirable task. As the Delaware Indians were fleeing white settlers here 240 years ago, a few stayed in place as a security force, to defend the land long enough for their compatriots to escape.

The stragglers never left. And a man who today calls himself Chief Silent Wolf -- and calls his people the Ramapough Mountain Indians -- says his present-day community descends from that splinter group.

The U.S. government says he can't prove it.

That means the Ramapough, who populate the leafy hills along the New York-New Jersey border, will receive none of the benefits afforded to federally acknowledged tribes.

No tax breaks for businesses. No scholarships. No money to preserve a weed-choked burial ground, where the deceased are memorialized by tiny flags poking out from the mud.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency that decides which tribes are recognized, says the Ramapough just didn't provide enough evidence.

But the Ramapough disagree and have filed suit against the agency in federal court. They claim that the bureau was influenced by New Jersey casino officials who fear that the tribe, if acknowledged, could someday build a casino drawing throngs of New Yorkers away from Atlantic City.

The Indians also charge that the bureau was racist, turning them down because some are of mixed Native American and African-American descent.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs denies the claims.

The Ramapough are part of a growing body of critics -- including Native American groups, federal lawmakers and the BIA official who wrote the acknowledgment regulations in 1978 -- who are questioning the objectivity of this all-or-nothing decision, one that can make or break Native American communities.

"Anything we showed the BIA, it wasn't enough," says Silent Wolf, originally named Walter Van Dunk. "They found some way to knock it down."

About 2,600 people are Ramapough, most of them living in the same quiet hills where they say their ancestors fished for bass, hunted wild turkeys and hid from white settlers centuries ago. This tight-knit community -- which borders Mahwah and Ringwood, N.J., and Hilburn, N.Y. -- is still quaint today, but the hills slope down into a valley of burger joints, gas stations and a glittery new Sheraton Hotel.

"At least they're just trying to write us out of history," Silent Wolf says. "At least they're not coming in and chopping our heads off and throwing us into fires -- and that's been done."

The Ramapough, who are recognized by the state of New Jersey, petitioned for federal acknowledgment in 1978. Twelve years later, members submitted piles of documentation -- genealogical and anthropological reports, letters, census surveys, land deeds. All told, it cost them more than $250,000 to apply.

The BIA's seven criteria for recognition are rigorous. Groups must prove they are descended from an Indian tribe that existed well before the Revolutionary War. They must have been widely identified as a Native American tribe since 1900. They must constitute a distinct community, maintain political authority over members and possess a governing document. They must not have members associated with other acknowledged groups. And they must not be forbidden by other laws from being recognized.

`There's no question'

Bud Shapard wrote these regulations as chief of the bureau's Branch of Acknowledgment and Research from 1978 to 1987. Before then, more than 500 Indian tribes had been recognized -- about 40 percent of them small groups in Alaska -- but no formal criteria existed for deciding which groups were or were not Native Americans.

The standards were supposed to bring rigor to the recognition procedure, Shapard says, but the criteria are so subjective that the bureau may, if it chooses, re-examine a case on appeal and change its opinion, using the same evidence but a new rationale.

"They just change the last sentence from `You didn't make it' to `You make it,' " he says.

Shapard, who was asked by the Ramapough to examine their case after the denial, says he doesn't understand the decision.

"It's pretty clear they've got an Indian community as strong as some that have been recognized," he says. "There's no question about that."

Shapard has advised Congress to overhaul the process, and that is being contemplated.

Calling the BIA's process an "embarrassment," Rep. Eni F. H. Faleomavaega, Democrat from American Samoa, introduced legislation in January that would rewrite the criteria and give recognition power to an independent commission.

The process today is too costly to tribes, he says. And it takes too long. Of the 150 groups to apply since 1978, only 25 have received decisions. (Twelve were acknowledged and 13 were denied.)

A similar bill Faleomavaega introduced last year failed by 18 votes. This year's legislation is awaiting debate in the House resources committee. Opponents fear the law would bring more recognized tribes, and thus, they believe, more casinos.

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