A knee-high pile of rocks sits in a far corner of a gated community set among rolling hills known as the Polo Club.
To the Ramapough Lenape Nation, which owns a patch of land in the gated community and piled the stones here, it’s an altar.
To the Township of Mahwah, the 15-foot-long mound is a violation of town code. And since 2017, the town has regularly issued flurries of citations: for the rock pile, for a collection of fallen trees tipped upright and arranged in a circle, and for using a residentially zoned plot for religious use, even when no one is there.
So many summonses — the Ramapough estimated they receive up to $12,500 a week in fines — that the town says the tribe owes more than $4 million.
The tribe has refused to pay the fines or apply for the permits that the town says are required, and instead has concentrated its energy on a lawsuit it filed last year, contending that Mahwah and the club are using zoning rules and fines to persecute it.
The conflict is the latest episode in a series of longstanding disputes over the government’s treatment of Native Americans — over planned pipelines, water rights and how the United States handles funds and natural resources that it holds in trust.
But in this case, the federal government — often a tribe’s adversary — has come to the Ramapoughs’ aid. The federal Justice Department filed a letter last month expressing its support for the tribe, suggesting that the tribe had cause to believe that the town’s behavior has “significantly chilled Ramapough’s use of the land for religious purposes” in violation of federal protections.
The Justice Department letter comes on the heels of a ruling in Trenton that clarified the Ramapoughs’ status as a state-recognized tribe.
“Freedom of religion is so endemic to the country that I almost can’t believe that people would have the gall to try to suppress it with Jim Crow zoning,” said Dwaine Perry, chief of the Ramapough tribe. “One part is racism, and the other part is that they see an opportunity by manipulating zoning,” he said. “They want to fine us out of existence.”
The disputed land, at 95 Halifax Road, sits within the Ramapo Hunt & Polo Club Association, a private community where houses routinely sell for in excess of $1 million.
The site, 25 miles northwest of Manhattan, is near areas considered sacred to the tribe: the Ramapo Pass and the junction of the Mahwah and Ramapo Rivers.
In community meetings and on social media, club residents complain that the Ramapoughs have damaged their quality of life by using the nature preserve for noisy and unlawful gatherings that have filled the quiet enclave with cars and outsiders, and the air with ceremonial smoke and drums.
“The tribe are trying to get away with murder,” said Stephen Murray, a retired schoolteacher whose house overlooks the tribal property. “They are trying to make this an issue of religious discrimination,” he said.
“But when they have a community gathering, a smoking celebration or a ‘half moon’ or whatever they’re doing, we have to hear their drums and the other crap that goes on there.”
John Roth, the mayor of Mahwah, declined to comment on the specifics of the situation, citing continuing litigation. “The Township of Mahwah’s singular interest here is that the zoning and property-use ordinances we have in place are complied with by everyone,” he wrote in an email.
In a sense, the clash has ties to President Trump’s decision to permit an oil pipeline across the Standing Rock reservation, which extends across North and South Dakota. In 2017, the Ramapough turned the New Jersey site into a protest camp, complete with teepees and a mess tent, in solidarity with Sioux Indians who were protesting Mr. Trump’s decision.
Protests were also held against a proposed pipeline much closer to home: the Pilgrim Pipeline, which would run through Ramapough land and carry oil and refined petroleum products between Albany and Linden, N.J.
After receiving numerous complaints about the protests, the town revoked a 2012 permit that the Ramapoughs had used to worship on the Polo Club site, which the tribe calls Split Rock Sweet Water. It successfully sued the tribe in New Jersey Superior Court for ignoring zoning rules. An appeals court upheld the ruling in part, but sharply reduced the fines that the Ramapough had to pay.
In 2018, the tribe filed its federal lawsuit against the town and the club on grounds that its freedom of religion was being violated.
The town of Mahwah “is applying the zoning law in an outrageous and irrational way, to limit the Ramapough from using the land in the way they have for centuries,” said Rachel Meeropol, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which, along with the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, represents the tribe in the federal suit. “It’s a blatant violation of the Ramapoughs’ right to religious practice,” she said.
On March 18, the tribe received the Justice Department’s statement of interest in support of the Ramapoughs’ suit. The move is in keeping with a Trump administration-led push for the department to throw its weight behind cases of religious liberty — albeit one that has more often seen it interceding in Christian causes like that of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a gay couple’s wedding cake, and religious expression in school.
In gaining federal support, the Ramapough say they find themselves in an uneasy alliance with a government that many of their members believe has emboldened racial animus, citing Mr. Trump’s stance on Standing Rock and his comments disparaging judges, political candidates and others.
“He started it by denigrating people, and started reinforcing old folk tales about people’s heritage,” Chief Perry, who also goes by Maqua, said. “We are more than pleasingly surprised by the Trump administration’s support,” he added. “It’s on a path to redemption.”
Emboldening the Ramapoughs is another, parallel war that the state’s Indians have been waging: for official recognition. Though the state is dotted with Indian place names, like Ho-Ho-Kus, Lake Acquackanonk and Mahwah, or “gathering place” in the Lenape language, the state’s tribes spent years in limbo starting in 2012. That was when Gov. Chris Christie, in a filing to the federal government, said the state had no recognized tribes.
The state’s tribes — the Ramapoughs, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape and the Powhatan Renape Nation, which say their memberships number in the tens of thousands — countered that they had been recognized by the state since the ’80s. (None of the tribes are federally recognized, a designation that would afford them the right to open casinos.)
“For some reason, one governor said, ‘You know what, there are no more Indians in New Jersey, you guys don’t exist,’” said Pastor Roy Bundy, a tribal representative for the Powhatan Renapes. Mr. Bundy believes that Mr. Christie wanted to block the tribes’ potential path to federal recognition, and neutralize any threat to the state’s powerful gaming interests in Atlantic City.
“It makes you feel kind of powerless — someone at the stroke of a pen can deny that you exist,” said Dr. J.R. Norwood, the principal justice of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Supreme Court and a councilman at large for the tribe, known as Smiling ThunderBear. In 2015, the Nanticoke-Lenape sued the New Jersey attorney general, seeking to regain its official status.
Last month, the Ramapoughs were officially recognized (or perhaps re-recognized) after the state settled with the Nanticoke-Lenapes in November. “Tribal rights are important rights,” Gurbir Grewal, the New Jersey attorney general, said in a statement on the settlement. “As a result of this settlement, there is no more ambiguity regarding the tribe’s official status, and the tribe’s forward progress cannot be impeded by any state-related recognition issues.”
The Ramapoughs hope recent decisions made in Trenton about their tribal status will bolster their claim on their patch of land.
On a recent afternoon, Chief Perry presided over a gathering at Sweet Water, standing within the circle of upright logs, some carved with pensive faces, for a tobacco ceremony. About 50 guests sprinkled tobacco leaves into a bowl, which then was cast onto a bonfire.
They did not have a permit for the event.