Nine months after Montclair State University officially recognized that the campus occupied Lenape land, a celebration on Monday, Oct. 10, acknowledged Indigenous Peoples Day.

Nearly a hundred people filled The Quad at the center of campus, sitting in a circle as the land acknowledgment was read and brief speeches were given by President Jonathan Koppell and Brianna Dagostino, a Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape member and a 2021 graduate of Montclair State.

Koppell, who was vocal about his support for indigenous tribes in his investiture address last month, urged students to understand the reasoning for the land acknowledgment. 

“Learn from these tribes that are not figments of history but active participants in the world today,” Koppell said. “Learn from them and be constructive.”

Those at the event did have the opportunity to learn, as the Red Blanket Singers, a group from the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe, performed and talked about the reason for the holiday.

Tribe member Urie Ridgeway taught the crowd about the various dance styles and colorful regalia of the group. The performers danced to the beat of drums as they were clothed in thick-patterned garments and headwear composed of feathers and porcupine needles. Between performances, he spoke about honoring the Lenape land. 

“It's important to us as indigenous people – actually as not just indigenous people, as human beings – it's important for us to remember this land,” Ridgeway said. “It's up to us to take care of this rain, to see to it that we have clean water for future generations. We have trees for clean air. It's up to us to care for this land. Each and every one of us has a part to play.” 

Professor Mark Clatterbuck, co-director of the newly launched Native American and Indigenous Studies program at the university, has worked alongside local tribal leaders for years to make sure students at Montclair State know the importance of the land they stand on. 

Nearly three years ago, Clatterbuck and other professors wanted to challenge the idea that the genocide and displacement of indigenous people is not only a stain on America’s history but is also having an impact on indigenous people to this day. 

“What is the legacy of settler colonialism?” Clatterbuck said. “Like how do we take responsibility for that? And we thought one of the ways would be to publicly acknowledge the fact that as a state institution, we occupy land that was traditional land of the Lenape.”

The land acknowledgment is read before campuswide events, including commencement ceremonies and various performances. In the acknowledgment, the university states, “We commit to addressing the historical legacies of indigenous dispossession and dismantling practices of erasure that persist today.”

People like Dagostino were instrumental in getting the university to formally recognize the plight of indigenous people. At her alma mater on Monday evening, she took center stage to address the importance of the day.

Dagostino highlighted the university’s efforts, including offering a minor in Native American and Indigenous Studies and also its celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day, which was officially recognized as a federal holiday last year.

“While I'm happy that it finally became a federal holiday,” she said, “I'm appalled that it took this long for the government to realize how racist they were. But that being said, it is time for all of us to recognize and respect the people who nurtured this land that we call home.

“I'm happy to be an alumni of a university that has made effective strides into recognizing and respecting the indigenous tribes of New Jersey.” 

In addition to educating them about the history of indigenous people, Clatterbuck wants his students to be aware of the lives they now live after being mistreated and discriminated against since America’s beginnings. 

One of the projects that the Native American and Indigenous Studies program is working on is the revitalization of the Munsee language, the native tongue of the Lenape people.

“One of the consequences of our settler colonial past is the loss of indigenous languages for so many communities, and the Munsee language was no exception,” Clatterbuck said. 

Students and faculty are working alongside New Jersey tribes to reclaim and sustain their language, land and culture. This past weekend, affiliates of Montclair State University spent time harvesting produce at Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm in Andover, which is operated by the Turtle Clan Ramapough, a clan of the Lenape people. The farm harvests tomatoes, onions, peppers and many other vegetables to provide for indigenous families in the area.

Chief Vincet Mann of the Turtle Clan Ramapough and a student harvesting produce. (Courtesy: Dr. Mark Clatterbuck)
Chief Vincet Mann of the Turtle Clan Ramapough and a student harvesting produce. (Courtesy: Dr. Mark Clatterbuck)

In an effort to refamiliarize people with the Munsee language, students and faculty worked with a language expert to create signs for the products in the Munsee language and English. 

“To be able to have students participate in that project, in partnership with the tribe, in such a concrete way is really an honor for our students and faculty,” Clatterbuck said. “Also, it's a beautiful way of being hands-on involved with that work of decolonization.”