The Ramapough

The Ramapough are a Native American tribe from the New York/ New Jersey border, found primarily in Mahwah and Ringwood on the NJ side and Suffern and Hillburn on the NY side. They live in the Ramapo Mountains and are descended from the Lenape, an Algonquin speaking tribe, who used to live throughout the whole area. They claim that they are specifically the Ramapough Munsee. This heritage has been in question for an incredibly long time. Even in the short amount of time (a year) I have been interested in their history, I have encountered many, many people who do not believe that the Ramapough are Indians. And of course, the biggest reason for that is the absolute lack of solid evidence supporting the claim that the Ramapough are Indians. Instead, people claim that they are an inbred group of people descended from former slaves, often referred to as the “Jackson Whites,” which is an incredibly derogatory way to refer to them. However, on the flip side, there really is no convincing evidence that they are not. Because of this, and things like the census denoting them as black or negro, there is a strong backlash against the Ramapough defining themselves as Indian and it becomes a political issue what side you fall on.

In the style of a true researcher, I am taking the non-answer side. There is no good answer because there is not enough evidence to effectively argue either side. True, there is no solid, historical evidence that the Ramapough are Indian and many stories point to them being descendants of slaves. However, that is not a good enough reason to discount their claim. There were Indians in the area and the BIA itself said when it denied their application for recognition that there was most likely individual Indians who remained when most of the Delaware, which is the name the major groups of Lenape took, ended up in Oklahoma on a reservation. They simply did not believe that an entire tribe stayed or that specifically the Ramapough Munsee. As for the argument that they are descended from slaves, historically speaking Indians and slaves have had a very strong relationship because they are both races that have been deemed less than that of white people. If escaped slaves managed to find Indians in the area, they very frequently intermarried and became effectively part of the tribe. A few easy, well-known examples of this are the Seminole of Florida and the Marroon communities of the Caribbean. Being descended from escaped slaves does not by any means eliminate the possibility of also being descended from Indians.

Even if they are not all genetically related to Indians, they are descended from oppressed people. Defining what they are is not necessarily the place of white people. This is a problem not simply all over the country, but all over the world. Indigenous people often do not have the kind of evidence that courts require to prove their status. Why would they? Back at the time of the contact period, they did not have the same views on how to run a society that the European invaders did and afterwards, many tried to simply blend in. There is no reason solid enough to deny out of hand the Ramapough’s claim that they are in fact Native. Therefore, I have taken the position for this project that they are Native because regardless of whether they really are or not, it has affected them and the way they interact with the rest of the world and that, not genetics, is the important thing to work with from a historical point of view. What people believe is even more important than the objective truth sometimes because it shapes the way people see things and how they interact with the world and each other. The Ramapough have a strong connection to nature and their heritage because they choose to and that choice makes the difference.

You can find their website here: