A New Chapter Opens Between Shinnecock And Southampton Town: Board Passes Graves Protection Act

Protesters confronted Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman in front of Town Hall in late August about creating legislation for graves protection. DANA SHAW

It’s the first of its kind in New York State, and Shinnecock Nation Chairman Brian Polite hopes Southampton Town’s Graves Protection law becomes a template for municipalities across the region. The Town Board voted unanimously to pass the measure on Tuesday afternoon, after months of COVID-19- related delay. For members of the Nation, the delay has measured in decades.

“Since 1640, the relationship between the Town of Southampton and the Shinnecock Nation has been marred with past injustices, land theft, and broken promises, but today marks a new brighter chapter in the 380-year relationship between the Town of Southampton and the Shinnecock Nation,” Mr. Polite said following the law’s passage.

“There have been several town boards who promised the Nation action and didn’t follow through, but this board voted unanimously today to fulfill their commitment to engage with the Shinnecock Nation and tackle an issue that has caused so much hurt and dismay to the Shinnecock Nation,” Mr. Polite continued. Stating he was “overjoyed,” he congratulated the Town Board for finally getting the legislation over the finish line. He offered special thanks to Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman for his “tireless work,” acknowledging, “I know it hasn’t been easy.”

Mr. Schneiderman brought the measure forward earlier this year, and under the restrictions of NY PAUSE COVID-19 safety regulations voted to continue public hearings throughout the spring, delaying the vote. He repeatedly expressed the hope for hearings in which community members could attend in-person. In advance of the last hearing on August 25, a contingent of Nation members protested outside Town Hall, confronting the supervisor about the delay. That day, he voted to close the hearing and set the vote for the measure for September 8.

The need for graves protection legislation came to the fore, Mr. Schneiderman recalled, when human remains were found at a construction site on Hawthorne Road in Shinnecock Hills in 2018. The supervisor remembered going to the building inspector looking for a stop work order, then learning there was nothing on the books to justify it. “That was unbelievable to me,” Mr. Schneiderman related Tuesday.

It was a new issue to the supervisor, but, he said, “This is not a new issue for the Shinnecock, it’s been a cry for decades … This is something that should have been in the town code a long time ago.”

Getting it right wasn’t easy, Mr. Schneiderman said. He worked with members of the Nation to craft the legislation and, believes, “We did a pretty good job going back and forth.”

Regulations in The Protection of Unmarked Graves Act apply townwide. Once suspected remains are unearthed, police must be called to investigate. If they determine the site is not a crime scene, the town’s archeologist steps in and contacts the Southampton Town and Shinnecock Indian Nation Joint Cultural Heritage Protection Committee and Stewardship Committee and the Southampton Historic Burying Ground Committee.

Members of the committee will be charged with tracing the lineage of the remains, then helping to determine its disposition. Native American human remains may be re-interred, or moved off site. In the event of the former option, landowners could be required to avoid the area where the remains were found.

The law, Mr. Schneiderman said Tuesday, sets up steps property owners must follow if they encounter human remains or face severe penalties of up to $10,000.

The board considered two moratoriums that targeted areas previously known to accommodate Native American remains and artifacts. The goal of the construction delay is to give lawmakers time to review current laws and land use tools to address the issue of unmarked graves and burial sites. On Tuesday, the board voted — again unanimously — to adopt what Mr. Schneiderman described as “the tougher one … it’s more inclusive.”

The moratorium divides lands thought to include ancestral burial grounds into two sections. Moratorium Area A includes parcels north of Montauk Highway, including the land known as the Shinnecock Indian Contact Period Village Fort region. It encompasses parcels bounded on the north by the Long Island Rail Road, on the east by Ridge Road, on the south by Montauk Highway, and on the west by Peconic Road.

Moratorium Area B includes parcels located south of Montauk Highway including the Sugar Loaf Hill Shinnecock Indian Burial Ground Region within the hamlet of Shinnecock Hills. They are bounded on the north by Montauk Highway, on the east by Southway Drive, on the south by Shinnecock Bay East, and on the west by Peconic Road.

The construction pause prohibits excavation, digging, grading or re-grading on any unimproved lot in Moratorium A, or any improved or vacant lot in Moratorium Area B. Work could be permitted, provided the property owner conducts an archeological study of the land.

Leaders of the Shinnecock Nation, at a virtual Express Sessions forum last month, highlighted the decades-long struggle they have faced in urging Southampton Town officials to pass graves protection legislation to preserve ancient burial sites in Shinnecock Hills, describing the effect of the loss of the sites to development as the cause of “historic trauma.”

“It’s like a slap in the face every time you drive through that area, just seeing the tremendous amount of wealth that has been built upon the graves of our ancestors, and the hurt and pain of having to face that every single day,” said Aiyana Smith, executive director of tribal operations.

“The legislation is long overdue, and the Graves Protection Society have been great with their advocacy and coming out and really expressing the frustration, and the anger, and the hurt that the desecration has done to the Nation,” Mr Polite said. “But as strong as the legislation goes, it has been a joint effort with the Town Board and the Council of Trustees on graves protection, and it can go a bit further. I feel that it’s a step in the right direction.

”People have a right to be passionate about this issue, Mr. Schneiderman said Tuesday. He acknowledged town officials can’t erase 400 years of history, but “we can move forward with respect together.”