NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – A Native American tribe brought a federal complaint Monday that accuses a New Jersey town and homeowner’s association of levying illegal fines and trying to intimidate them into stopping open-air prayers on ceremonial grounds.
Represented by attorney Valeria Gheorghiu in the lawsuit, the Ramapough Lenape Nation claims town officials have used zoning ordinances and nearly $500,000 in fines to force it off private property on 95 Halifax Road in Mahwah, N.J.
The land is “a sacred site of immense importance to the Ramapoughs,” and is used for religious ceremonies involving Mesingw masks, pipe ceremonies and sweat-lodge sessions, the complaint states.
At the behest of a homeowner’s association, the complaint says the Ramapoughs have faced a “historical pattern and practice of harassment” from Mahwah intended to drive them off the land.
For the past several weeks, according to the complaint, the Ramapoughs have faced daily fines of up to $12,500 per day for using the land for open-air prayer, carving the Mesingws masks into tree trunks, and erecting a stone altar.
“The Ramapough Lenape Nation is being attacked by the town of Mahway and the Polo Club,” the 46-page lawsuit states.
The Ramapough tribe, sometimes referred to disparagingly as “Jackson Whites,” has been embroiled in a number of lawsuits over the last couple years with Mahwah over the site, as well as skirmishes with state officials over a proposed pipeline through their land.
The tribe claims it acquired the rights to the land in 1995 as a private gift from developer Charles Elmes, and its members have conducted prayers and ceremonies on it for decades.
Starting in the 1990s, however, Mahwah allegedly began using various tactics to push the tribe off the land, including condemning homes occupied by tribe members and issuing several zoning infractions.
According to the suit, a member of the Polo Club told tribal Chief Dwaine Perry that, if the tribe did not sell the land, “unnamed members of the Polo Club were prepared to attack the Ramapough Lenape Nation.”
Other club members and town officials have allegedly said they wanted “something done” to remove the prayer rocks on the sacred sites. The complaint quotes town attorney Brian Chewcaskie as asking during a council meeting: “Do we go in and take the rocks down ourselves?”
Since then the tribe says they have heard gunshots at night, suffered slashed tires and tents, and faced other incidents of vandalism. The Polo Club has also allegedly hired a public relations firm to smear the tribe in the media and has called police several times following complaints from neighbors to intimidate the tribe.
“We’re willing to talk to them in good faith, but we’re not going to give up our rights,” Steven Smith, a member of and adviser to the tribe, said in an interview. “We are the decedents of the original people of Manhattan. This land is part of what little we have left and they want to take that.”
Smith denied that tribe members are breaking the law when they pray on the land, saying town officials are rewriting laws so that they drive the tribe off the land.
“This isn’t law, this is Jim Crow,” he said.
In 2018, according to the suit, the town attorney said the town would issues rules to prohibit prayer on the site and to remove the tribe’s sacred alter from the site. A Bergen County judge denied a proposed injunction by the town and Polo Club in December to destroy the sacred sites and prevent religious ceremonies on the land.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction against removal of the tribe’s sacred altar and prayer circle, as well as to prevent the fines.
Mahwah has clashed with other groups, including a group of Orthodox Jews whom the town had tried to prevent from setting up religious boundaries known as eruvs. The town backed down from its ordinance prohibiting the eruvs and settled earlier this year with the group.
An email to Chewcaskie seeking comment was not immediately returned. A representative for the Mahwah mayor’s office declined to comment on the suit.
Gheorghiu, an attorney for the tribe, did not immediately return an email seeking comment, and her voicemail box was full.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.