by Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
It goes almost without saying – but I’ll say it anyway – that all the land in New Jersey once belonged to the Indigenous people who lived here for millennia before European colonization. After 400 years of wars, treaties, forced removals and migrations, and unfair government policies, little land in this state remains under Native American control.
That’s why a Sept. 15 “rematriation” ceremony in Quinton Township, Salem County, was such an extraordinary and happy event. The ancient Cohanzick people, part of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Nation, were reunited with a piece of Mother Earth where their ancestors once lived.
The ceremony celebrated the purchase of 63 acres within the Burden Hill Forest by the nonprofit Native American Advancement Corporation (NAAC), in partnership with the New Jersey Green Acres Program, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, The Nature Conservancy and the Open Space Institute.
The land, now known as the Cohanzick Nature Reserve, will be used for conservation, education, and cultural events. A former church building on the property has been transformed into a Native American longhouse, where ceremonies and educational classes will be held. The forested land will be used for traditional Native American activities, including foraging for edible and medicinal native plants, hunting, fishing, and outdoor ceremonies.
“We want to marry the culture with conservation. We believe in being one with nature,” explained Tyrese Gould Jacinto, president and CEO of NAAC. “We don’t take or overpower nature; we ARE nature. If we don’t teach this to the children, then nothing changes.”
Jacinto found the property through a real estate listing when the NAAC was looking for available land, and only later discovered that many of her direct ancestors had lived there. Later, while walking the property, she felt a distinct “energy” that made the air on her arms stand up. She knew then that it was the Cohanzicks’ spiritual home.
The land rematriation in Salem County wasn’t the only one this year. Back in March, a sacred Native American site in the Ramapo Mountains straddling the New Jersey-New York border was purchased by the Land Conservancy of New Jersey, then transferred to the Ramapo Munsee Land Alliance, a nonprofit formed by the Ramapo Munsee Lunaape Nation.
Known as Split Rock Mountain, or Tahetaweew (“The Gate that Opens”) in the native Munsee language, the 54-acre property is on the border of Mahwah in Bergen County and Hillburn and Ramapo in Rockland County, N.Y. As Chief Dwayne Perry noted, Tahetaweew was the place where the tribe’s holy leaders would go to deliberate on matters of peace and understanding among their people.
“A decision of great importance would be found by tribal elders and brought back down to the fields below, where two long houses stood to welcome the decisions inspired by the energy and the sacred knowledge they had gotten at the Tahetaweew,” said Perry.
The purchase of the Split Rock property was made possible by contributions from more than 50 private donors, including the Doris Duke Foundation and the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference. These enabled The Land Conservancy to purchase the land, clean it up, and cover related costs like surveys and environmental assessments.
The gift of Split Rock allows the Ramapo Munsee Lunaape Nation to care for the land and establish gathering places to educate future generations. The new land trust has full ownership and decision-making power on the land, allowing the tribe to continue its culture and traditions.
Though not technically a rematriation, a piece of land in Sussex County with great significance to another Indigenous group – the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape Nation – is being used for producing crops to sustain its people.
Chief Vincent Mann and Michaeline Picaro of the Turtle Clan lease 14 acres through the Sustainable Agriculture Enterprise (SAgE), a low-cost leasing program on preserved farmland, established by the nonprofit Foodshed Alliance. Mann and Picaro’s Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm is officially a start-up, but it operates more like a charity – feeding, nurturing and healing members of the Turtle Clan.
When the SAgE land first became available in 2019, Picaro and Mann were the first to sign up and got their choice of farm plots. Picaro recalls walking the land and feeling a special energy in one place: a warm, cozy sense of home and belonging.
“We believe the trees and the stones and everything have a spirit. We call them our grandfathers, the stones,” said Picaro. “When I walked back there, I felt it.” She chose that site as the location for their farm.
Later, she discovered an Indigenous mortar and pestle and quahog clam shells on the land; she also found written documentation that it had once been a Munsee Lenape village. Picaro and Mann hoped to buy the land, but were told that the preservation regulations in place on the property did not allow the transfer of title to the Turtle Clan.
To Picaro, this was a “crushing” disappointment. Though she loves being on the land and appreciates the affordable lease, ownership would have allowed the Turtle Clan the sovereignty to do more, including holding ceremonial gatherings and following other tribal traditions. She hopes that in the future, her clan will get that opportunity.
November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to honor the rich history, culture and traditions of Indigenous people.
This year’s land rematriations are a sign of hope. Though our society can never atone for the land taken from Native Americans in the past, today’s public agencies and private organizations can do our part to make things better in the future. Returning lands to Native American communities enables sound, sustainable practices on the land for the benefit of all. And perhaps we can tap into the Native Americans’ unique knowledge and practices to help heal our planet through access, education, good stewardship and renewed love for the land.
To learn more about the land rematriations, go to www.nativeadvancement.org/cohanzick.html, www.tlc-nj.org/post/ramapo-reclaim-split-rock and www.njconservation.org/press_release/63-acres-in-salem-county-returned-to-indigenous-conservationists/.