The first Sunday in June has always been an important day for people living on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation. June Meeting, as it’s called, has a special significance in Shinnecock culture. It is a modern-day continuation of ancient thanksgiving ceremonial feasts and communal gatherings, centered around times of harvest. Shinnecock residents come together at the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church, which is decorated with wildflowers, and share strawberry-themed dishes and food, while paying homage to traditions of past generations.
Lifelong Shinnecock resident Aiyana Smith describes it as “a springtime thanksgiving,” and says that strawberries, in particular, are an important part of Shinnecock lore.
“There’s a whole story around the strawberry being the first fruit and a gift from the Creator,” she said during an interview in April. “There are a lot of stories surrounding the strawberry; about forgiveness, and about it being the Creator’s first gift to the people. It’s almost similar to where you have the wine representing the blood of Jesus Christ. The strawberry represents the heart of our Creator.”
A service is held at the church, and the celebration continues throughout the day, as people go from home to home to visit and share food, Smith said.
June Meeting is just one example of the many rich traditions in Shinnecock culture. Some have been passed down for thousands of years, long before colonization, while others evolved or came about around the same time period as colonization and mix both traditional elements of Shinnecock culture with newer traditions of Christianity.
Preserving and paying homage to as many of those traditional ways of life is important for present-day Shinnecock people, especially in a fast-paced, modern world that threatens to wipe away memories of the tribe’s history. They want to remain seen, and respected, in a world that, more often than not, has tried to silence them and shrink their visibility. Many people who are not Shinnecock residents — whether they are year-rounders or seasonal part-time visitors — don’t know much about the tribe’s history and may even be unaware of its existence. Events like the annual Shinnecock Powwow, which began in 1946, are not only a celebration of Shinnecock culture and way of life, but a way to invite people from outside of the reservation to immerse themselves in the culture of their neighbors.
David Bunn Martine is the Shinnecock Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and is one of the most qualified Shinnecock tribal members when it comes to providing insight into the history of his people. He describes the history of the Shinnecock people as being broken down into several different timeframes: the Paleolithic (7,000 to 3,500 B.C.), also called the Clovis culture, Archaic (3,500 to 1,300 B.C.), Transitional (1,300 to 1,000 B.C.) and Woodland (1,000 B.C. to 1640 A.D.). After English settlement came the Contact and Historic periods of history for the Shinnecock and their relatives, the Montauk and Uncechaug people. According to Martine, the Paleolithic period was defined by a nomadic lifestyle for the tribe, where they hunted caribou, seal and giant beaver across the sub-Arctic conditions, using a Clovis point spear. During the middle and late Archaic period, the tribe refined its hunting skills, created the dug-out canoe, and began a semi-nomadic lifestyle, living in communal longhouses and domesticating wolf-like dogs while still depending on hunting and gathering for food. An important distinction of the transitional phase, Martine said, was an association with group burials on the eastern slopes of hills, and the proliferation of elaborate burial practices.
Many of the traditions still carried out by the tribe today originated during the Woodland period, such as the June Meeting celebrations. Ceremonial gatherings around times of harvest are important in Shinnecock culture, Martine explained. Song, dance and other recreational activities were part of gatherings tied to certain phases of the moon.
Martine also pointed out that, in recent years, many tribe members have taken an interest in revitalizing traditional skills from the time period, including finger-weaving, wigwam fabrication and traditional clothing construction, among others.
Wampum-making, fishing practices and whaling are, according to Martine, three of the most significant contributions from the Woodland period that, with the exception of whaling, are still carried out today. Wampum — the shell beads made from purple and white clam shells — are an extremely important part of the Shinnecock culture.
Ancient fishing techniques and tools — handmade nets, dragging practices, bone-spear barbs and hooks — were honed by the Shinnecock people, and their ability to adapt to fishing through ice and at night, as well as using nets to harvest shellfish, were all practices adopted by colonists.
Whaling, of course, became a huge industry during colonial times, and the techniques that allowed that to happen came directly from the Shinnecock and other tribes in the area. Martine pointed out that the whale looms large in Shinnecock lore.
“To the ancient Shinnecock, the whale was a gift of ‘Moshup’ or ‘the giant,’ who was a representative of the Creator,” he said. “The tails and fins were considered the most important parts of the whale. Drift-whaling first emerged as the primary activity of the English; then off-shore whaling began.”
Many Shinnecock men were hired by offshore whaling companies and were considered master harpoonists.
“Some of the native men who went on voyages hunting the whale from Sag Harbor, Nantucket and New Bedford died in various places, never returning to Long Island,” Martine said. “Places such as Hawaii, New Zealand and the island of St. Helena are among the places Shinnecock whalers are buried.”
It was during the most recent “historic” period that the Shinnecock people saw the greatest change and upheaval to their way of life, more than in any of the previous thousands of years of history. The year 1670 marked the first whaling contract with Shinnecock men joining with Southampton men, and in the late 1700s, the Reverend Elisha Paine ordained Shinnecock Indian Reverend Peter John, who took over from Mohegan Reverend Samson Occum and visited Indian congregations in Shinnecock, Poosepatuck and other areas.
The wreck of the freight ship Circassian off Mecox in 1876 was a tragic event in Shinnecock history. Ten men from the tribe drowned after they were threatened, at gun point, as the story goes, to continue taking material off the ship in the middle of a storm. Alfonso Eleazer was the only Shinnecock man who survived.
The second annual U.S. Open Golf Championship was held at Shinnecock Hills Golf Course and featured two Shinnecock residents in John Shippen and Oscar Bunn. Shippen, 21 at the time, finished fifth, while Bunn finished 21st. Shippen had moved to the reservation with his family after originally living in Washington, D.C., after his father was named the minister of the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church, and he worked as a caddy at Shinnecock for many years. He was the first African-American player to compete in the Open, and another black man did not compete in the tournament again until 1948. Both Bunn and Shippen went on to become golf pros at various clubs. (Bunn’s father, David Waukus Bunn, was one of the 10 men who died on the Circassian).
The first Shinnecock Powwow was held in 1946, benefiting the tribe and the Shinnecock church. On June 16, 2001, the Shinnecock National Cultural Center and Museum opened its doors. Nine years later, after a long, drawn-out court battle, the Shinnecock Indian Nation became a federally recognized tribe, which helped open doors to certain avenues of housing funding and access to improved health care for tribe members.
Modern-day life for Shinnecock people is certainly a far cry from the experience their ancestors had thousands or even hundreds of years ago. For current Shinnecock residents, continuing to honor the traditions of those ancestors is not only vital for maintaining their identity as a people, but also for raising awareness for those in the larger community around them. For AiyanaSmith, respect of those traditions, and what the Shinnecock people have endured, is key, especially because the reservation is surrounded by wealth and affluence, particularly in the summer months.
“It’s like being re-colonized every year,” Smith said of the influx of summer residents. “When colonization was still happening, it was an influx of foreign people, and it was a very traumatic experience that nearly wiped us out. It’s a historical trauma that is still carried down.”
Smith’s message to out-of-towners who may know little or nothing about the reservation and the people living there is simple but clear.
“We just want people to be mindful that the descendents of the original people that lived here are still living here; breathing, existing, going into the same stores and public spaces,” she said. “So when you see us, don’t look at us as outsiders. Recognize that you’re enjoying the beautiful land that we hold dear.
“Respect is the biggest thing,” Smith added. “Respect the people and respect the land that they’re on. The land you’re on is native land, and we haven’t left. We’re still here.”
Jeremy Dennis Explores His Indigenous Culture
Born and raised on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, photographer Jeremy Dennis is deeply connected to his culture and heritage and uses his work to explore themes of indigenous identity while also challenging preconceived notions throughout time. Dennis, 28, sat down recently at the Amagansett Free Library — where his project, Stories, was on display — to discuss his photography, including past projects as well as ongoing work. He spoke about his introduction into photography, his mentors, what he tries to achieve with his work, and why his Shinnecock heritage is at the heart of everything he creates.
The Express: Let’s talk first about how you initially got into photography and art. I know your mom, Denise Silva-Dennis, is an artist and art teacher. Tell me about her influence and the influence of other mentors along the way.
Jeremy Dennis: I had a lot of different mentors. Of course my mom is the main figure because she’s always been there and was always very empathetic to my career and the struggles and triumphs that can happen as an artist. In my family there is another Shinnecock photographer named Herbert Randall who did the Freedom Summer photographs in Mississippi during the 1960s. I’m very lucky because I was doing dark room as my earliest introduction to photography and he had all this 35mm film and cameras, and he was very patient and kind with me.
Obviously your work is greatly informed by your Shinnecock heritage. Your artist statement on your website says you are keenly interested in exploring indigenous identity through your work. Tell me about that and why that is so important to you?
I grew up on the Shinnecock reservation my whole life, and if you’re familiar with the bounds of the reservation and the politics and social interactions, you kind of feel like you’re bound to this 800-acre plot of land. Your role as a tribal citizen can be very vague. In my work, I’m always contemplating how do you mix the traditional and contemporary lifestyles, because tradition is what defines us and grounds us, and the contemporary is about having enough money for rent or to make a living.
You also speak about providing an alternative to the testimony of western histories. Tell me more about that and why that’s important to you.
What I want to do at this point in my work and portfolio is to try to reveal a lot of America’s early history that’s a little harder to talk about. I have a book called “On This Site,” and it’s just a physical archive of the project but it has an online element that provides our presence just on Long Island in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, archaeological evidence of our presence. I always feel like for some reason we go from Columbus to the Declaration of Independence, and everything in between is like, “I don’t really want to talk about it or learn about it.”
Let’s talk about some of the technical aspects of your work. The images in the Stories project here have a kind of Hollywood look to them. What are you aiming for?
You see a lot of images that could potentially be a still from a film, and even though they are printed on metal, they could just as well be backlit and seen in a movie theater.
I think very visually; every paragraph can spawn a new idea in my mind. After I’ve created a sketch from a text, I work with different volunteers and we set up a location. Shooting on location is half the time, and then I go to the computer and upload all the files and, just like a paper collage, I use the Adobe suite to create a final composition.
Tell me about some of your newer work that relates directly to the Shinnecock people.
There’s a new project I’m working on, the Shinnecock Portrait Project, which had support from Skidmore College. I found a different portrait project from the 1970s in the Shinnecock museum, beautiful black and white portraits with nametags next to them. I’m trying to update that in a web format. In this new project I’ll have an interview portion and then I’ll transcribe it so people can keep in touch with what people are doing. So it’s going to be a publicly presented project eventually. At this point I have interviewed seven people, but my goal is to have everyone [on the reservation] represented. It’s ambitious. But I feel like the more people that get involved, just like the myth work, it brings people together.
What have you discovered about yourself through your work?
I was very shy growing up, and if you look at all my projects, they have a very strong element of interacting and socializing. I feel like through the arts, it really created a sense of purpose in my life. It also helped a lot with social anxiety, and it’s helped me overcome that.
What are some of your long-term goals for your work for the future?
John Strong’s book, “We Are Still Here,” is a text I often refer to. I feel like every project I do is just based on that simple premise, that just sharing our presence is enough as an artist and an indigenous person.
To learn more about the work of Jeremy Dennis visit jeremynative.com.