It seems like a scene plucked right out of a Louis L’Amour novel: Teepees dot the plain beside the river, totem poles mark a circular prayer site, and men in moccasins and fur caps tend the ceremonial campfire.

This is Split Rock Sweet Water, a prayer camp members of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation set up in October on tribal land just a few miles from the New York border in Mahwah, New Jersey.

It initially was intended as a show of solidarity with those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota.

But three months after they pitched their first teepee, the Ramapough camp has become a battleground in an intensifying fight against the Pilgrim Pipeline, a planned interstate dual pipeline that would carry fracked Bakken shale oil from upstate New York to a central New Jersey refinery.

And like any battleground, enemies lurk in unexpected places: Township officials have ordered the tribe to tear down its teepees or face thousands of dollars in fines for camping on a floodplain and without needed permits. Police, meanwhile, have been hailed so frequently by some of the tribe’s wealthy neighbors that the Ramapough’s chief, Dwaine “Iron Bear” Perry, complains they’re “harassing” the tribe.

“You’ve got one or two white supremacists that’s lost their minds, and they’re driving this hate challenge that we’re finding every day,” Perry said.

The contamination concerns, together with efforts to shut down the Native American encampment, have prompted some to liken the Ramapough’s crusade to “the next #noDAPL.”

“The pipeline that is here is no different than the pipeline that is at Standing Rock, or any other pipelines that are being laid around the country,” said Little Wolf, an Arawakan-Taino indigenous man staying at the Ramapough camp. “It’s almost like prospectus gone wild, and it’s going wild at the cost of a particular group of people - the native people.”

A threat to drinking water?
The $1 billion pipeline project, first pitched publicly in fall 2014, would actually be two parallel pipelines stretching 178 miles that could carry 400,000 gallons of oil a day between Albany, N.Y., and the Bayway Refinery in Linden, N.J.

The Ramapough were far from the first to raise concerns about the project; about 80 activist and municipal groups formed a coalition to fight it. Critics worry a spill would pollute the wetlands and waterways of the New Jersey Highlands, New York’s Hudson Valley, and Hudson Raritan Estuary, contaminating the drinking water for millions of people.

“This 178-mile pipeline would carry very flammable and dangerous Bakken crude down to New Jersey to refine it and ship it back north. The oil companies get the money, upstate New York and New England gets the fuel, and we get the pipe,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This pipeline would cross three major water-supply rivers (Ramapo, Pompton, and Passaic) and then go through the watershed of New Jersey’s second largest reservoir (Wanaque Reservoir), and cross the Buried Valley Aquifer, which altogether provide drinking water for 4 million people. If we had a spill of any magnitude, it would wipe out a big part of New Jersey’s water supply for months.”

Mahwah Mayor William Laforet agreed: “Nobody knows for sure where the path of the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline will be, so it’s like fighting with a ghost. Our concern is that if it fails, it affects millions and millions of people between here and the Newark basin. I never thought in my lifetime that water would be more valuable than crude oil, but the value of our drinking water far exceeds the value of shipping oil across of the top of the Newark basin.”

But the issue is particularly piquant for the Ramapough.

That’s partly because the tribe, like many indigenous people, regard themselves as protectors of the earth.

“We call the pipeline ‘the black snake,’ because it’s an invasive creature that brings nothing but bad things,” Little Wolf said. “We don’t need to have these things that people are trying to force down our throats. It is time that, as people of the earth, we rise and we say: ‘No, we want something different. Our model is better.’ As stewards of the earth, we should be the lead in showing that, we were right: Our way has been better. Mother Earth comes first. Preserving our water, this lifeblood of humanity, comes first.”

But beyond that, for the Ramapough, the proposed pipeline is just the latest environmental insult.

The Ford Motor Co., which produced more than 6 million cars at its Mahwah plant from the mid-1950s until 1980, dumped millions of gallons of paint sludge and other industrial waste in the woods around Mahwah. The Environmental Protection Agency added the area to its Superfund sites in 1983 and ordered several cleanups. But sludge and rusty storage drums still are sometimes found in the woods, and Ramapough elders said tribe members - about 3,800 people who live in five counties on either side of the state line - have high rates of cancer and birth defects from the contamination.

“We’ve lost nearly a third or more of our people from various exotic cancers related directly to sludge,” Perry said. “(The Ford contamination) highlights the consistency of bureaucratic malfeasance. We should be looking to file criminal charges, if not murder charges, towards some of these corporations.”

The Sierra Club’s Tittel added: “The Ramapough have been dumped on for years, whether it’s Ford dumping paint sludge, or power lines, recycling centers, landfills or gas and oil pipelines being put in the (Ramapough) community, where there is a tremendous amount of poverty, pollution and powerlessness. This is the classic definition of environmental injustice and environmental racism.”

And as more oil companies plan pipelines across the United States, tribal lands are being increasingly threatened, watchdogs say.

Locally, the Ramapough has invited supporters to occasional prayer gatherings and ceremonies. And in Lancaster, the Northern Arawak Tribal Nation of Pennsylvania has condemned a pipeline expansion proposed there, saying it threatens an area rich in Native American artifacts and burial sites.

And after mounting protests helped persuade the Obama administration to halt construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline in December, President Trump advanced the project last week, ordering the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expedite its environmental review. The Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters vowed to fight the orders.  

Racism or rules-flouting?
As if an oil company wasn’t a daunting enough foe to fight, the Ramapough have the rich people up on the hill.

Some residents of the Ramapo West Hunt and Polo Club, a private, hillside development of mansions that looms over the Ramapough’s riverside prayer camp, have tried to shut it down, enlisting township officials to issue citations for code violations that carry thousands of dollars in fines. The camp is on tribal land, but the 13.9-acre site - donated to the tribe about 25 years ago by the mansions' developer - sits on the banks of the Ramapo River just past a bridge warning would-be visitors that the community is private.

Paul Scian, who heads the club’s homeowners’ association, didn’t return requests for comment.

But one resident, who refused to reveal her name because “we don’t want to get into a media snit with the Ramapough,” said: “This is a multi-million-dollar housing development. How would you feel having people living like that on the vacant lot next door? This is a private community, and they’re inviting whoever to come and join them.”

To Perry, such opposition is rooted in racism and hate. The tribe has been targeted by racists before, including a swastika scribbled on a sacred stone at the Split Rock Sweet Water Camp last fall, he said.

“We’re not running a Boy Scout camp. This is a prayer site,” Perry said. “If it’s not racism, it’s certainly some form of anti-spiritual, anti-religious position.”

But the neighbor called that characterization “a bunch of baloney.”

“It’s not who they are; it’s what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s not acceptable, and it’s not legal. They can pray and worship all they want, but they can’t build and they can’t live down there.”

Mayor Laforet agreed, albeit a bit more diplomatically: “They’re basically saying: ‘We don’t need to abide by these land-use laws.’ The issue is not about the tribe and its desire not to have the Pilgrim Pipeline, or their right to assemble. It’s about zoning violations; their refusal to obtain permits then begets summonses. They in themselves have allowed this to escalate. We wish they would simply come in for their permit; there is a well-documented, historical way to obtain permits. I think this is an issue we all hope we can amicably resolve.”

Perry, though, suspects his wealthy neighbors aim to eventually wrest the land from the tribe by egging the township into levying fines the tribe will never be able to pay. 

The two sides planned to fight it out in court, but a hearing was indefinitely postponed as they seek compromise.

Meanwhile, the Ramapoughs say they hope to win more supporters in their pipeline fight.

“Even if I only come here to shovel snow, I know that at least I was able to come and play a part to help my people,” Ramapough member Two Clouds said. “ We’re a few people. We have a lot of allies. But we need more people to realize what’s going on and to stop this. We’re going to make our small voices loud, and we’re going to ride on the waters, figuratively speaking. We may be small people, but we have big hearts.”

Ramapough member Owl agreed: “In many ways, our fight here at Split Rock Sweet Water Camp is the same as Standing Rock. It’s the same battle.”