“Conscience Point” Brings Shinnecock Nation And Its People Into Focus

Shane Weeks, a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, fishes on the reservation in Southampton across from luxury homes. Photo by Nadia Hallgren.

By Michelle Trauring

Filmmaker Treva Wurmfeld is drawn to feisty female characters. And in 2014, Becky Hill-Genia commanded her full attention.

It was the way she spoke — honestly and openly, with a “no-time-to-lose” energy steeped in empowering philosophies and political ideas, Wurmfeld recalled. It was her natural rise as a role model, her tenacity and fearless ability to speak her mind, years before the “Me Too” Movement and the 2016 election.

And, most obviously, it was her longtime activism on behalf of her community and ancestors within the Shinnecock Indian Nation, the original inhabitants of the beautiful peninsula they call home. And, yet, it’s a home that has also been the subject of a brutal fight for ownership, with an increased push for development coming to a head against both the environmental equilibrium of the East End and the tribe’s ties to ancestral burial grounds throughout the region.

“She took full advantage of our initial conversation to introduce me to some of the things that she was currently addressing through her activism, and I took the bait,” Wurmfeld said with a laugh. “Our initial conversation made me immediately aware that I wanted to learn more from her.”

Over the next several years, the filmmaker made regular pilgrimages from her home in Los Angeles to the East End, staying for one or two weeks at a time to explore local issues through her lens. The result is the 75-minute documentary “Conscience Point,” a jam-packed, ground level approach to the nearly two-decade-long Shinnecock battle for preservation — one that encompasses not only questions of land ownership and grave desecration, but also the morality behind the environmental crisis and income inequality in one of America’s wealthiest zip codes.

And, on Sunday afternoon, “Conscience Point” will make its world premiere at none other than the Hamptons International Film Festival, as part of the “Views from Long Island” program — challenging those who see the East End as simply a commodity, to reframe the area as a place that means heritage, community, belonging and home.

“It’s certainly the most appropriate location we could think of when it came to trying to get the message out,” Wurmfeld said. “As much as we hope to reach a wide audience, it’s very important with this film to also spark dialogue locally and get the message out to the local Hamptons communities.”

While Hill-Genia and the Shinnecock dilemma are at the heart of the film, “Conscience Point” branches out as a microcosm of the United States, exploring themes of over-development and the subsequent environmental impact, class struggle, the Latino experience, and the growing resentment between the working class and uber-wealthy, who are ultimately dependent upon one another, Wurmfeld said.

“There are so many layers of irony,” she said. “There’s this need for the labor, but not wanting the labor class to live in your backyard, but then it causing traffic and complaining about the traffic. It’s all just so blatantly apparent, and yet full of irony.

“It goes beyond issues of inconvenience,” she continued. “We’re talking about massive environmental issues. I think it’s really imperative that some of this conversation gets prioritized sooner rather than later. And I think the Shinnecock, and Native Americans at large, need to be front and center in that conversation, because they lived for thousands of years without affecting the land negatively.”

In the film, interviews with tribal leaders Lance Gumbs and Shane Weeks are juxtaposed against conversations with Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and developer Joe Farrell, who most recently graced headlines for hosting a campaign fundraiser for President Donald Trump at his Bridgehampton mansion, “Sandcastle.”

“He was very generous with his time and I really appreciated his participation,” Wurmfeld said of Farrell. “I mean, I never lost sight of the message I wanted to bring forth. However, as a filmmaker who is employing journalistic tactics on this film, I felt it was important to hear from as many sides as possible. And he’s a really interesting person because, in a way — obviously, he’s very successful at what he does — he has a strong attachment to the place, as well.”

In the film, sociologist Corey Dolgon, author of “The End of the Hamptons,” provides clarity on what isn’t said between the lines, as well as the “cross-cultural” perspectives between the land developers, local government, baymen and farmers, second- and third-home owners, and, of course, the Shinnecock, the filmmaker said.

“The issues in the community go way beyond the Shinnecock at this point, but even for people who are already aware of this history, I think there is a deeper understanding we could all have,” Wurmfeld said. “Especially as somebody who grew up visiting a lot of what, in essence, were colonial settlements along the New England coast, I can’t see those places the same way anymore. It makes my stomach turn a bit, because I can’t help but see it from the Native American perspective.”

Some of Wurmfeld’s earliest memories date back to the summer of 1980, when her parents — both artists and teachers — rented a house near Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton. It may have been an escape from Lower Manhattan, growing up in the shadow of the World Trade Center, but her family did not treat it like a luxurious one.

They traded golf for swimming in the bay, fancy restaurants for digging in the mud for clams. They rescued turtles from the road, soaked up the sunshine and breathed in this “beautiful, wild place,” she said, unaware of any turmoil simmering below the surface.

For decades, she lost touch with the area, until her first feature film, “Shepard & Dark” — which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012 — screened at Stony Brook Southampton a year later. It was only then that she began to see the Shinnecock’s struggle to preserve the land that she, as a visitor, also cherished — her suspicions only confirmed by Hill-Genia not long after.

“It was my re-introduction to the area,” Wurmfeld said. “I was intrigued by that initial time I was out there for that screening, and realizing there was way more to this place than I had remembered, or that I realized.”

The filmmaker had heard the name “Shinnecock,” but didn’t understand its history or the Native American nation associated with it. She quickly realized she wasn’t alone.

“A lot of people who live on Long Island — or have a familiarity, in some way, with the history of Native Americans on the East Coast — see the subject matter as an obvious choice,” she said of the film. “Then, I’ve noticed if I’m telling people who are not from the New York City area or Long Island, they’re dumbfounded, like jaw-dropped: ‘No way, there’s a Native American reservation in the Hamptons?’ I get a completely different reaction with people who are unfamiliar.”

As Hill-Genia continues to speak up for members of the Shinnecock Nation — fighting for their land, their ancestral gravesites and legislation to protect them — Wurmfeld is now standing beside the feisty matriarch in solidarity, shining a light on the issues her people face.

“I’m absolutely an outsider and I’m not Native American at all, but I really take to heart how they see things and how their present day connects to their past,” she said. “I think people who are in denial are going to want to maintain some denial. I have a feeling ‘Conscience Point’ could be controversial. But controversy is good when it sparks dialogue and gets people talking about these issues.

“We all want to have hope for the future,” she continued, “but I think people are so eager to maintain their second and third homes as places of rest and relaxation, and don’t want to be confronted with a lot of these issues.

“But I’m not sure we can afford to do that anymore.”

“Conscience Point” will make its world premiere on Sunday, October 13, at 3:45 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, as part of the “Views from Long Island” program. An encore screening will follow on Monday, October 14, at 12 p.m. at the Southampton Arts Center. For tickets and more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.

“Conscience Point” can also been seen on PBS’s “Independent Lens” on Monday, November 18, at 10:30 p.m.