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The case for Ramapough tribal status
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Sunday, April 30, 2006

COLUMNIST James Ahearn's claim, based on David Cohen's 1974 book, that Ramapough Indian heritage is "thinly supported" is nonsense ("Sorting out a melee," Opinion, Page O-2, April 9).

The record for federal recognition shows that Cohen's findings are discredited by genealogists and other scholars. Notably, the United States Department of Justice acknowledged in court that the Ramapough are Indians.

John "Bud" Shapard, former head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office that decides federal recognition, went on record supporting the Ramapough, finding their case well-documented. Certified genealogist Roger Joslyn traced the Ramapough genealogy to the 1700s, concluding they are descended from the aboriginal Lenape Indians. The late Professor Herbert Kraft of Seton Hall, a leading scholar on the Lenape, disagreed with Cohen and supported recognition.

Cohen had no professional credentials in genealogy, and he failed to appreciate basic standards of genealogical research. For example, historical labels such as "colored" or "negro" appearing in the federal census were used to identify all non-white persons, including persons of Native American ancestry. The BIA found much of Cohen's genealogical work lacking.

Interestingly, Cohen found that the Ramapough of the 1970s continued using herbal cures of the Lenape, but put little credence in this obvious evidence of a continuing Indian community. Cohen also failed to give weight to the fact that the Ramapough spoke "Jersey Dutch" into the 20th century, a language containing many words from the Lenape. Cohen's book ignores 18th-century deeds and early private correspondence showing Lenape ancestry of the Ramapough.

Cohen attempts to explain the Native American ancestry of the Ramapough as a "myth." As Cohen told a reporter on Dutch TV, "It is better in America to be an Indian that to be a black. If you could establish an Indian identity you would experience less prejudice."

According to Cohen, Ramapough ancestors beginning in the 1700s simply changed their identity to Indian.

However, records of the 1700s fail to show any advantage to being an Indian in New Jersey or New York. Indians were enslaved by European settlers or even killed outright. Certainly, Native American ancestry has not saved the Ramapough from discrimination and bigotry throughout history.

Former New Jersey Assemblyman Cary Edwards, sponsor of the resolution recognizing the Ramapough Mountain Indians as a Native American tribe by the state, submitted to the BIA a detailed document tracing much of his historical research and personal knowledge of the tribe. It leaves no doubt of the sound historical basis for New Jersey's decision to recognize the tribe.

One might ask why, in light of the overwhelming evidence documenting a continuing Lenape Indian community in the Ramapough Mountains from the Colonial period until modern times, did the BIA fail to grant federal recognition to the Ramapough Mountain Indians? The question should be directed to Donald Trump, who feared they might be granted a casino. It is a matter of public record that then-Rep. Robert Torricelli, D-Fair Lawn, a voice for Atlantic City, publicly announced the BIA's decision to deny the Ramapough federal recognition weeks before it was signed by the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

Albert J. Catalano and Matthew J. Plache of Catalano & Plache, PLLC in Washington, D.C., served as legal counsel to the Ramapough Lenape Indians in the federal recognition proceedings.


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