Keeping the Sacred Fire Burning – Chief Dwaine Perry

I am writing this from what we commonly call the Lower Hudson Valley, north of New York City, which is the land of the Ramapough Lenape Munsee people.

It has become a practice for some folks while in public communications, zoom calls, etc., when asked where they are from, to say, “on the land of …” and then the name of the tribal people who inhabited that land prior to the arrival of Europeans and the forced removal or genocide of that people. It seems like a respectful thing to do.

When I was growing up in the 50’s, we played “cowboys and indians” and watched western movies where the indians were savages and the really evil villain was the medicine man. As time went on we began to see Native Americans portrayed with more nuance and then respect and even a kind of idealization. The medicine man we learned is a shaman with access to great wisdom and healing powers. Movies have changed. Lots of attitudes have changed. But the reality of many Native tribes is still quite dire.

The Ramapough are still here in New York and New Jersey and I live on what was their land. They are struggling to keep their language and customs alive and to preserve the sacredness of what remains of their land, much of which continues to be gobbled up by suburbia and mega-mansions. In recent years the tribe has fought numerous legal battles just to have the freedom to hold public ceremonies on the small patches of Mother Earth they can still call theirs. These ceremonies have been attended by Native people from all over the world and hundreds of non-Native people in the area (myself included).

The tribe was recognized by the State of New Jersey as the Ramapough Indians in 1980. Their effort to achieve federal recognition was thwarted largely by intense lobbying from, yes, Donald Trump. Trump claimed the Ramapough were not legitimate and would bring waves of crime. Of course, he also feared they would establish a casino that would compete with his own just miles away in Atlantic City. The story of this struggle is told in the film American Native (2013).

Over the years they have dealt with the classic definition of environmental racism. Portions of a toxic waste dump of the Ford Motor Company became the site for affordable housing for many of the Ramapough people. The contamination has been linked to nosebleeds, leukemia, and other ailments. They also have been at the forefront of the battle to stop the Pilgrim Pipeline from carrying gasoline, diesel, kerosene, aviation fluid and heating oil through their land. * At the center of these activities is the man who since 2007 has been the elected Chief of the Ramapough Munsee tribe, Dwaine Perry. It was an honor for me to record my recent conversation with Chief Perry for my podcast and YouTube channel, “Crossing the Boundary.”

Chief Perry has a long history of fighting for human rights, today focusing primarily on issues of concern to the Ramapough Munsee nation, decolonization, and the indigenous community at large. He has sat with Elders and indigenous leaders in the Himalayas, the Andes, and throughout North America. His journey to Standing Rock was instrumental in establishing the Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Camp in northern New Jersey. He is also currently working to establish the first Embassy of Sovereign Indigenous Nations of the Western Hemisphere.**

While Chief Perry often speaks sardonically, he is a serious man who, against all odds, seeks to unify his people and bring together native and non-native peoples to work together for a kinder humanity, honoring the living Earth and all creatures as sacred. As I previously said, it was an honor (and a joy) to speak with him and learn more about the tribe and his life. See: podcast: or YouTube:


Please check out the amazing photos taken by Lisa Levart that have been made into an outdoor installation entitled, “Still Here – Women of the Ramapough Lenape Nation.”