The Accidental and Intentional Neighborness of Our Communities


convo H Haie A Cornish

A Conversation with the Rev. Holly Haile Davis and her mother, Elizabeth Haile, two prominent members of the Shinnecock Nation who recently took part in “The Accidental and Intentional Neighborness of our Communities” a discussion with Rev. Alison Cornish held at the meetinghouse of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork.

You led this discussion at the UU Meeting House last week. How did it go?

Holly: I’d like to define discussion. Alison and I decided to begin a conversation last year at this time. It took the form of a dialogue sermon at the meeting house. A conversation between us in a public arena. It was very tentative, opening a door that in my mind has never been opened. What I mean by that is outsiders wanting to have more than a one-way conversation with the Shinnecock. It’s been very one-sided for 370 years. To have a conversation where more than one side’s will was being considered was represented in our dialogue sermon last November. And so this was then part two of that continuing conversation. The second installment was this past Sunday. We wanted to expand that conversation to include what I might offer in terms of the conversation, but also what my family elders and younger people in our family would have to say if asked by our long time neighbors what we had on our mind.

Alison: Both of our roles shifted this year — we’ve committed to having this conversation privately as well as publicly. Holly and I meet regularly not just as colleagues and friends, although we are that, but to continue the conversation of ‘what does this mean to be these communities on the East End?’ My charge to my congregation was to bear witness, to hold space in as nonjudgmental and as open minded a way as possible to allow representatives of Holly’s family and the Shinnecock people to speak their truth. From my perspective, I could have heard a pin drop for a long time in that sanctuary (Elizabeth nods). It took a long time for the young people to feel moved to speak, but they got there. Some of the things they said revealed deep feelings of hurt and pride and love and worry. For my part, we were on the edges of our seats. It was empowering. We closed the service both years with a seminal handshake, which our friends have introduced us to — standing in a circle around the perimeter of the sanctuary, and people shake hands in chain, and each person in the room gets to shake hands with everyone else in the room. Holly and her family were all in one area of the circle. As members of the congregation arrived in that area, things slowed down. People didn’t want to move on from that spot. I was really touched by that. Whatever was being handed, whether it was gratitude or questions, clearly it was being communicated.

Holly, do you have any recollection of what was being conveyed as things began to slow down?

Holly: It illustrates like few other events can illustrate, the distance between our communities. If I have lived next door to you for 370 years, why doesn’t a passing greeting represent all that we share? That part hasn’t even happened yet. So if I haven’t spoken to you in 370 years and I finally get a chance to speak to you, it’s gonna be more than a passing handshake — those opportunities are not created. That’s why last year when Alison invited me into a conversation with her, I thought it was a wonderful, unique invitation. Because that doesn’t happen.

We tease and call November Indian season — there will be lectures at schools, before Thanksgiving there’s a moment for Native American singing or dancing. Local people don’t often go to the powwow. The only people who say “I’ve never been” are people who live right here. That’s because of the atmosphere of what Eastern Long Island has become so far. So someone inviting the Shinnecock to speak and attend and create a space where that could happen was valuable and rare. I hope our neighbors will be willing to hear what we have to say.

Elizabeth: I looked at it as an opportunity to express Native American awareness. I use that term because it represents the willingness of our people to put into a nutshell our way of life, our being, our very presence, that has been here and of which our immediate neighbors are not aware. (Laughs). They really don’t know us. It’s easier to make a category than to know individuals. I would like to remind Southampton township that there’s an office of liaison between Southampton and the Shinnecock Nation. It was established in June of 2009 and I was appointed to be the person to fill that desk and represent my nation but they have never found a place for my desk yet. I was invited last June to go and look at a space that had been vacated and would be appropriate for the Native American liaison office and that was the last I ever heard from them.

So you went and approved of the office…

Elizabeth: Oh yes. I said that would be fine, and then I never heard from them again. Is that awareness or what? How about unawareness? It’s because we have a wonderful sense of humor that we’ve survived all of this. And I think our young people who have told of the hurts they have experienced in middle school and high school in Southampton public, that they came out with a very positive comment on the whole situation, I thought they were beautiful in their understanding of what happened to them, and how, as my granddaughter said, they thought she would never make it into private boarding school, that she wouldn’t be accepted and she couldn’t afford it anyway, from which she graduated and then went on to college, from which she graduated, and now she is teaching in the schools, public and private. So what happened to all those predictions?

Alison: She was so magnanimous in saying that the doubt made her stronger. Holly and I joked about having started this dialogue last year at Indian season, in November. It’s more than true — it’s metaphorically true. I’ve lived here for 21 years and my understanding of the greater community’s relationship with the Shinnecock Nation is to make the Shinnecock Nation into something two dimensional rather than three-dimensional. Fortunately we have people like Holly and Elizabeth who go to schools and at least get past the cardboard cutouts that are stuck in the windows and past the mythologies we were all raised with. But I also feel like a part of the two dimensionalizing is to turn the Shinnecock Nation business into headlines. As soon as it becomes a media story, it has all of those things you need for a newspaper story: conflict, colorful characters, language. People begin to walk around the East End thinking they know who the Shinnecock are and what they’re doing. And they have lined themselves up on one side or the other without any relationship. And what it all boils down to for me is relationship. I wanted a relationship with Holly. I wanted to know Holly and her interests and passions and struggles. Not the way she presents them on a pulpit or in a press release, but as a person. The only way to do that is to sit and to talk and to laugh together and to cry together and to know each other’s lives a little bit.

Holly: I am very grateful to Alison for having so much courage. It was courageous to ask the question: would you like to start this dialogue?

I see this conversation is a great step in the direction of creating a relationship between our neighboring communities. What else do you see as a step for us to take to make a relationship so people can see you as three dimensional?

Elizabeth hands me an official document signed by the president.

Alison: This was an amazing proclamation issued by President Obama and one of the young women read this as part of Sunday’s service, and she became choked up. She teared up in reading an official government proclamation. As she said, she saw herself as a real person in his words… The relationship is a new beginning. This is spiritual work first and foremost. The political process has been dominant in pursuing nationhood with all their vigor and all resources and all their time. Things have to be legislated. We all know that, for example, the civil rights movement changed laws, but we don’t have equality. The only way that’s going to happen is person by person. My hope is that after somebody comes to a service like we had, they’ll read the newspaper differently, maybe they’ll go to a powwow, not just as a consumer but as a participant, that when kids come home from school and talk about what happens on the playground they might hear those stories more fully, more compassionately, with more advocacy. One thing Holly’s sister [Rebecca] spoke about that moved me deeply was about the most difficult thing she’s ever done in her life — to go to the Southampton town board and ask them to protect Native American burial sites. Can you imagine as a white privileged person to have to go and plead with government officials to not unearth the remains of ancestors? What would it be to walk with Becky across that line as you would walk with a pregnant woman to a clinic — I see the relationship and the conversation being one and the same. But ultimately it’s about changing one heart at a time. It’s slow work and you have to be committed to it. We like each other, are committed to the work, but it’s still hard to find the time to go deep enough.

Elizabeth: I am going to be teaching people that the president has indeed established a proclamation of Native American Month and Native American Day (November 26) as an annual event; it gives a place in the curriculum. We can say this is the national day of celebration in honor of our ancestors. How about that?

Holly: Don’t judge a sister or brother until you’ve walked three moons in their moccasins. That human to human thing — I laugh when I’m walking down the street and I wave my arm — I don’t even know who the person is. On the outside I walk down the street and people walk right by you. No good morning, no hello. The human to human thing is often the element that we’re missing. That’s why we can’t get to step two, because we haven’t gotten to step one. We haven’t decided — what is it like to get up on a November morning with no heat? What is it like to go to a food pantry the day after Thanksgiving and get spoken to in such a manner that you leave there crying? Where is the human to human? That’s what Alison’s invitation represents to me.

Alison: A place is shaped by the people who inhabit it. When we think about the East End, it has not been shaped by the values and experiences of the Shinnecock people. It’s been shaped by the values of people who have come from away. There’s a disjunction between the people and the land. What I said on Sunday is this is a very small stab at giving equal time but we have a lot of time to make up.