Steven Oritt
“I am an Indian,” says Chief Dwain Perry of Ramapough Lenape Indian. Photo courtesy Steven Oritt

How Indian Are You? Ramapough Have Their Say in 'American Native'

Tish Leizens

At the core of the award-winning documentary film American Native, which will show in selected cinemas in New York and New Jersey in September, are stirring questions that have been asked of Natives time and again: Are you an Indian? How Indian are you?

These questions have long been directed at the Ramapough Lenape Indians, a group based 30 miles away from New York City. They have struggled to establish their Native identity due to racial mixing and a lingering urban legend that refers to them as “Jackson Whites,” a pejorative term that refers to their heritage as a blend of Black and White races.

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"I’m an Indian," says Tribal chief Dwaine Perry at one point in the film. "How much of an Indian are you?"

"What is your BIA number?" asks another member of the Tribe. Interview subjects include Tribal elders, historians, a folklorist, an anthropologist, lawyers and The Delaware Nation President Kerry Holton.

The documentary has been well received. It won the Best Documentary Feature in the Manchester International Film Festival 2015. It has been nominated twice in St. Tropez Film Festival and is up for an award in the forthcoming Harlem International Film Festival.

The film is also being released in theaters through Gathr, an on-demand theatrical distribution crowdsourcing site.  

In 1980, the New Jersey legislature recognized the tribe as Ramapo Lenape Nation but its members’ efforts to be federally recognized have for decades been thwarted because of inadequate historical documentation proving their bloodlines and cultural traditions.

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"Identity comes from within, and no one person, group or organization should dictate another person’s identity," said Corey Bobker, a non-Native producer who was born and raised some 20 minutes away from the Ramapo Mountains. "You are who you think you are."

Yet for the Ramapough, it's not that simple. How does one misunderstood tribe, numbering some 5,000 members and residing in some affluent communities in Bergen and Passaic counties in New Jersey and Rockland County in New York, preserve their cultural heritage?

Chief Perry’s response in the film—after showing instances of friction in the community—resonates with his members. “It is about the Native people in this country," he says. "It is about the Ramapos being treated as dirt bags like these people have been doing for the last 200 to 300 years.”

In the Native world, the film sheds light on the benefits of a federally-recognized Lenapes versus the Ramapough have-nots, with Holton talking about the thriving enterprises of the tribe that relocated to Oklahoma.

Steven Oritt, American Native film director, at work. Photo courtesy American Native

“The film is a look at modern American Indian identity and the legal, social and cultural definitions of the term 'Native American,'" said director Steven Oritt. He said he wanted Natives to gain insight as to life experiences of a non-federally recognized tribe in contrast to a larger federally recognized one.

“We hope people get a sense of family after this film. The one thing you can’t deny is that the Ramapough are the oldest family in New Jersey, maybe even in the country. Watching them interact, support each other and their cause inspires love and feeling of togetherness that can only be achieved through a familial bond,” said Bobker.

The film begins and ends along the same lines. “I made a promise to myself that before I have a family and a wife and kids I know my culture inside and out,” said a young tribal member. The future is at stake.

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