At the origins of the federal Superfund program is the story of a community in upstate New York that discovered toxic residues and vapors leaching out from a chemical landfill and under homes and schools, yards and playgrounds, and mobilized to demand that the town of Love Canal be cleaned up and residents resettled elsewhere. The saga ended with relocation of more than 900 families, and the containment and cleanup of the site, part of which was ultimately renamed and resettled, deemed a successful effort “to protect public health and the environment.” Making hazardous sites and those exposed to them healthy and whole (at the polluter’s expense) is the premise of the program, covering 1,327 active sites across the country, and 438 cleanups completed to date.
But in the town of Ringwood, New Jersey, the current home and traditional land of the Ramapough Lunaape (Lenape) Turtle Clan, a Superfund cleanup provided no such tidy resolution. Years after the piecemeal cleanup of toxic paint sludge dumped by a Ford auto plant, hazardous chemicals still remain in the ground and threaten the water supply. The area’s contamination is just one iteration of the dispossession and alienation of Indigenous people from their native lands, ongoing since European settlement of the Americas. Today, Native American communities live near more than half of the highly contaminated Superfund sites listed across the country; over 600,000 live near nuclear test sites, uranium mines, power plants and dumpsites for toxic waste.
What do you do when a cleanup fails you? The Ramapough are taking a new approach: If land is compromised, find and nurture new land. This past summer, Turtle Clan members embarked on a project of cultural restoration at the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm. On nine acres, 35 miles away from Ringwood, they are seeding autonomy, health and food security for their community and others. Architect and educator Anita Bakshi and her team of researchers have been working with members of the Turtle Clan to tell the story of their land, to memorialize and mark ongoing environmental damage, and now, to restore relationships across species and generations. Below, she describes a people’s work in progress to make themselves healthy and whole again, on their own terms. – MM
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a Ford Motor Company manufacturing plant in Mahwah, New Jersey, close to the border with New York State, dumped toxic paint sludge waste in the mine shafts and surrounding forests of the nearby township of Ringwood. This waste was discarded on the homeland of the Ramapough Lunaape Turtle Clan — members of one of New Jersey’s state-recognized Native American tribes — polluting their woods, foraging grounds, streams, and backyards. The contamination has led to environmental degradation, illness, and the loss of traditional practices connected to the land. Although the site has been partially remediated, harmful material remains to this day. The area is also located just a few miles upstream from the Wanaque Reservoir, which provides drinking water to millions of New Jersey residents.
What has it meant for the Ramapough to live with contamination for so many decades? At first, members of the tribe didn’t realize the health implications of what lurked below the soil, so they continued to live as they always had. The Ramapough farmed, fished, and foraged, gathering watercress and wild carrots for meals, or burdock and sassafras for medicine. But as people began to fall ill with a number of diseases, they figured out what was happening and sought help. Studies revealed the presence of the dangerous toxicants in their soil and streams. The Ramapough’s homeland in Upper Ringwood was listed as a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), designating the highest level of federal commitment for remediation. But the subsequent cleanup was a scratch on the surface: a cosmetic wipe that lifted off some sludge to show that a responsibility had been fulfilled, a debt repaid. Contaminants remain in the ground and in the bodies of the Ramapough. In some ways, the Ramapough have resigned themselves to living with pollution. Yet they are finding other ways to resist and to reclaim some of what has been taken.
In the video below, Ramapough community leader Wayne Mann and Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann discuss the roots of the environmental contamination problem in Ringwood, New Jersey.
The town of Ringwood, New Jersey is tucked under the edge of the Ramapo Mountains, right along the border with New York State. Although it is just 30 miles away from Manhattan, driving down the area’s narrow roads and through its small towns, you feel the pull of the forest and mountains. The landscape is also marked by the history of iron mining. Old mine towers are visible on hikes through beautiful places like Long Pond Ironworks State Park or around Sterling Lake, just across the border in New York. Ringwood itself is home to Peters Mine — one of the deepest iron mines in the region — where, from roughly the 1740s to the 1950s, workers dug 1,800 feet into the deep bedrock to extract this valuable resource from the ancestral lands of the Ramapough Lunaape people.
Many Turtle Clan members still live in Ringwood today, some in houses that were built in the “mine area” of the town, and many were employed in the mines before going to work at the nearby Ford Motor Company plant in Mahwah — the largest auto plant in the nation when it was built in 1955. The plant was a product (and an engine) of an age of accelerated movement. Cars were quickly spit off its assembly lines, set to drive on the newly paved lanes of the New Jersey Turnpike and, in turn, drive further suburban sprawl in the region. The plant also generated waste, including millions of gallons of paint sludge: five gallons for every car, or roughly equal to 6,000 gallons per day. Much of this toxic material was dumped illegally, including on land that Ford would later donate to an anti-poverty home building program (and on which the Turtle Clan have now lived for decades). Peters Mine, with its 2,400 feet incline, also served as an enormous trash chute for the Ford plant’s waste. Its remnants still hold the many carcinogens contained in paint sludge: lead, arsenic, antimony, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), Bis(2-ethyhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), and acetone. The degree to which these toxicants have seeped down into the bedrock punctured by the mine remains unknown. Meanwhile, there are lingering concerns that these chemicals could migrate to the nearby Wanaque Reservoir.
Once they began to feel the impacts of these chemicals in their bodies — whether through disease itself, or through the trauma of losing community elders — the Ramapough organized, gathered allies, prepared armloads of paperwork, and advocated to get the dumping sites added to the Superfund National Priorities List in 1983. At this point, the EPA made a commitment to remove contaminants from a 500-acre area, including nearly 50 private homes, and to ensure that the land was once again “protective of human health and the environment.” In 1994, the agency removed the site from its Superfund list, claiming that the work of remediation was finished. Yet the EPA had left Ford in charge of determining remediation sites, and the company had chosen just four limited areas to investigate and clean up, removing a fraction of what had been dumped. Meanwhile, residents continued to find paint sludge deposits in their backyards, and even entire barrels in the nearby woods. In a 2005 series called “Toxic Legacy,” reporters from the Bergen Record documented, and made public, evidence of the remaining contaminants which the Ramapough had seen in their everyday surroundings for years. For the first time in the history of the Superfund program, the site was restored to the NPL in 2006
Below, Wayne Mann describes the pollution caused by the Ford Motor Company.
It is important to say that this experience of contamination does not define the Ramapough. It does not define their lives, nor their land. They have not ceased the long fight to bring attention to pervasive toxicity on their homeland, and dangers it poses to themselves and the watershed. But they also continue to live their lives and to rebuild what they can. They are still there, but they have also left. Some people have moved out of Ringwood to nearby towns, even as they continue to visit, worship, and hold deep connections to this land.
Chief Vincent Mann has been the Turtle Clan Chief since 2009. In that time, he has won awards for his environmental justice work, and served as a cultural monitor while companies have sought to lay pipelines in the area. He has also worked to create partnerships with organizations and universities to support efforts for cultural restoration and food sovereignty, and to raise awareness about the ongoing threat of contaminants leaching into drinking water. This work includes an ongoing collaboration with the department of Landscape Architecture at Rutgers University, where I teach. Chief Mann has strived, in all these ways, to improve the living conditions for those who remain in Ringwood, and for all the people whose drinking water comes from the Wanaque Reservoir. But he is also working on leaving. He is working to create another place on which to emplace some of what has been lost at Ringwood: a ground on which to build a cultural restoration program, and a productive landscape from which to work towards food sovereignty.
In May 2020, Chief Vincent Mann and Clan Mother Michaeline Picaro leased a nine-acre site in Newton, New Jersey on which to cultivate the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm. Sitting on preserved farmland adjacent to the protected forest and wildlife habitat of the Muckshaw Ponds Preserve, the farm is part of a partnership between Ridge and Valley Conservancy and the Foodshed Alliance called the Sustainable Agriculture Enterprise Program (SAgE), which offers long-term, affordable leases to farmers, while connecting growers to resources and providing business management and marketing training. Encompassing 201 acres of interconnected ponds, with publicly accessible trails running alongside rare and endangered plants, the preserve buffers the farm from suburban development to the north. The farm itself also contains a hatching ground for turtles, which will remain protected and enhanced for nesting. The farm’s name reflects the importance of the three sisters, or staples, of Native American agriculture — corn, beans, and squash — which support each other and allow for a thriving food system.
The Ramapough have also partnered with the Experimental Farm Network (EFN), an organization that protects and repatriates seeds to Native people. The EFN shared Lenape Blue Pulling Corn seeds with the Ramapough, who, in turn, will grow the corn to seed on the Three Sisters Farm and distribute to other farmers. The farm is also growing Munsee Tobacco, which Chief Mann received as a gift in 2015 at the Medicine Garden in the town of Ramapo, just across the state line in New York (another regional dumping site used by Ford). In its first season, the farm was able to harvest the three sisters crops, as well as melons and Munsee tobacco.
“Nurturing the land will allow for the life stored in the seeds to sprout into life and grow, resulting in a symbiotic relationship caring for soil, seeds, and plants, producing a bountiful harvest for all. The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life. It takes a community to raise a farm.”
–Chief Vincent Mann
The farm is growing in multiple directions. Two greenhouses were donated and erected this summer; thousands of bulbs of garlic, seed potatoes, and hemp seedlings were planted; annual vegetables fill the crop rows; and chickens are laying eggs in their coops. The farm is an integral part of the Ramapough’s efforts towards food sovereignty. The cost of groceries is high, and many in Ringwood have lost access to the foods they once foraged due to contamination of their ancestral lands. The crops grown on the Three Sisters Farm will provide affordable, clean, and healthy sustenance.
The farm is a new home for important Native crops; it also a site for building connections with other plant and human relations. The Ramapough plan to grow produce and medicinal crops that are important to other groups and cultures; and to reach out to nearby communities, such as Newark, to organize visits for children to see the farm and learn about Lenape culture and sustainable farming practices. The Ramapough recognize that many other marginalized communities in the state share their struggle for environmental and food justice, and seek to play a role in enhancing access to healthy food and learning opportunities for growers. The farm will serve as a teaching space and landscape of connection to cultural traditions.
Over the next decade, Chief Mann and Michaeline Picaro envision enhancing the spaces and programming at the farm. Plans are underway to acquire an additional 144 acres of agricultural land in the area, and for the farm to play a larger role in providing produce to other communities in New Jersey that currently do not have access to fresh, clean food. The farm will be planting more seeds; further developing its growing practices; designing and building structures for gathering and education; and instituting trainings in medicinal plants to help establish a new generation of knowledge keepers. All this will take money, whether that be through grants or donations.
Below, Navasink Lenape descendent Kala Silent Hawk Ligon speaks about what survival means for him and his family.
How do these two sites, Upper Ringwood and the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm, connect? They are 35 miles, or almost a one-hour drive, apart. But one grows from the other. When we consider the question of how to respond to contamination, we see answers in what the Ramapough have already executed and experienced: You organize; you get attention from the media; you get politicians to notice your problem; you get listed as a Superfund site; you get the commitment of the federal government to make you whole and healthy again. But when that fails, another question follows: How do you respond to remediation when it falls short, over and over again?
The Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm provides another answer. You move (even though you also remain in place), and you find another ground on which to build. The farm is a ground for cultural restoration; it is another place for healing and repair to happen; it is a site on which to suture a lost relationship to land-based practices that can no longer occur because of contamination. One would not exist without the other. It is a place to recognize these imperfect, untidy connections between land and community, and between communities. The farm holds the soil on which food sovereignty will be built, not only for the Ramapough, but for other communities and other peoples who also suffer from food insecurity.
There are more answers to be found, and more land that is needed. Chief Mann has been negotiating for years to gain access to state-owned, preserved farmland in Vernon, New Jersey — just a 20-minute drive from Ringwood. This 103-acre farmland site is near the Black Creek Site, a place of cultural significance for the Ramapough. Listed on the New Jersey and National Historic registers, over 6,000 artifacts have been excavated here, marking 10,000 years of Native American presence in the area. But the Ramapough still have not been given access to this nearby land, which has been lying dormant and unused for years.
In the meantime, the farm is a place, but it is also a practice of Indigeneity. It is a form of resistance that continues even when land is lost and home is hurt. The practice of the people on the land continues, grows, evolves, heals and restores. They just need the land back.
All video clips are excerpted from the documentary Meaning of the Seed, produced by Anita Bakshi in collaboration with the Ramapough Lunaape Turtle Clan. For more information about the Ramapough and Ringwood, read Our Land, Our Stories, edited by Anita Bakshi, and featuring the work of students in the Landscape Architecture Department at Rutgers University.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.