EXPRESS SESSIONS: Shinnecock Nation Leaders See Grave Protection, Economic Development As Cornerstone To Overcoming Barriers

Bryan Polite

Leaders of the Shinnecock Nation, at a virtual Express Sessions forum last week, 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.

“Every time we drive from one area of our territory to the next, it’s painful. It’s painful. It’s just re-feeling the feelings of colonization that happened over and over again. And, you know, a lot of times people might say that these things are old history, this happened in the past, it’s not relevant today. But it really is relevant today. When you feel that every time that you’re just traveling anywhere that you go, when you travel through the Shinnecock Hills, you feel those ancestors, you feel those spirits, you have a genetic memory of the past.”

Shinnecock members are cautiously hopeful that a new round of legislation to protect grave sites proposed by the town — the tribe has been fighting for decades to have such legislation passed by numerous town administrations with no success — may be enacted next week, when the Southampton Town Board is scheduled to vote on the often tabled legislation on September 8.

“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,” Bryan Polite, chairman of the Shinnecock Council of Trustees, 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. I’m happy that the legislation is finally going toward a vote.”

Pressure put on Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman during a protest in front of Town Hall may have spurred the vote on the legislation, which had been tabled numerous times. Mr. Schneiderman had said he was hoping that several virtual public hearings on the plan would be continued in person following the threat of the COVID-19 epidemic, but he changed course following the protest.

The comments came after the latest virtual Express Sessions event “The Shinnecock Nation: What’s Next?” held on the Zoom platform on August 27. In addition to Mr. Polite and Aiyana Smith, panelists included Council of Trustees Vice Chairman Randy King; Shinnecock activist Rebecca Genia; Lance Gumbs, tribal ambassador and Northeast regional vice president for the National Congress of American Indians; and Shavonne Smith, environmental department director.

The forum was hosted by Press Executive Editor Joseph P. Shaw and introduced by Co-Publisher Gavin Menu.

The discussion included the much anticipated graves protection act; the tribe’s plans for the annual Powwow this year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, elements of which will be held virtually this year; economic development plans to help sustain Nation members; and the overall relationship between the tribe and the surrounding community.

Sacred Sites

New York is one of only four states not to have laws to protect Indigenous burial sites. For nearly two decades, Shinnecock Nation members have been struggling to convince town officials to create legislation to protect numerous former burial grounds spread throughout Shinnecock Hills and the surrounding area.

“Everything we say, we have documented for nearly two decades,” Ms. Genia said, “two solid decades of proposing this legislation, drafting. It’s hard work. And it’s even harder to see the graves of your ancestors destroyed.”

Last year, Mr. Schneiderman proposed legislation that would establish protocols to follow in the event that human remains are found at construction sites. The town has also proposed a moratorium on new construction on possible burial lands within the Fort Hill and Sugar Loaf areas of Shinnecock Hills without first completing a mandated archaeological review of the land. The moratoriums would allow the town to enact further safeguards.

But even since the legislation has been proposed, Ms. Genia argues, further development in the area has taken place, potentially disturbing grave sites.

Rebecca Genia

“Is this some kind of vicious joke?” she asked. “The Town Board [is] deliberately undermining the efforts to preserve and protect traditional lands of Shinnecock people. Since the days of so-called proprietors, Southampton has been taking advantage of the Shinnecock people in order to steal our land from underneath our feet. Southampton has abused us, lied to us, and shoved us into a marshland area to die of swamp fever while dishonorably benefiting and prospering.”

Mr. Polite struck a more conciliatory tone, noting that the pandemic may have had a part in delaying the legislation and noting the Town Board’s effort to get the legislation passed.

“I do want to acknowledge that the Town Board has been working with us in good faith,” he said. “Unfortunately, due to COVID, there were delays. And as I was explaining at the Town Board meeting the other day, people were saying the delays were mutual. Yes, they were mutual. But the problem, and Becky just said earlier, while those delays were happening, and obviously COVID is a reason to postpone things, construction continued.”

Ms. Genia said the proof would be in the pudding.

“We’ve heard the song and dance before,” she said. “I don’t trust a thing that they say, whatever they’re trying to say that they’ve done in the past or what they’re working on. It doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t put your money where your mouth is. Until everything is preserved in perpetuity, we’re not going away.”

Virtual Powwow

The Shinnecock Nation has held a public annual Powwow over Labor Day weekend for 73 years — this year marks the 74th — and has been a model of powwows for Native American nations across the country in depth and scope.

In addition to the cultural and spiritual significance of the event, it has traditionally been a moneymaker for some tribe members who sell concessions and crafts to the thousands of people who turn out to help the Nation celebrate.

But due to the pandemic, this year’s celebration will be muted, and closed to the public. Instead, a virtual three-day ceremony limited to members celebrating from their homes will be live-streamed on Facebook. Additionally, vintage film footage from previous Powwows will be shown.

While disappointed, the panelists said the event will still be significant this year, perhaps in new ways.

Shavonne Smith

“For the first time, not having the big celebration with everyone coming, including tribal members who don’t live here year round, but take that opportunity to come home Powwow weekend,” Shavonne Smith said, “I think it’s going to create a space, but I won’t call it an empty space, because this year we’ll have the opportunity to spend that time doing a little more family-oriented, small-time together. But the fact that there’ll be virtual footage that will be available, it’d be nice to be able to look at some of the older pile of pictures.

“But I think this’ll be a more relaxing, calm and personal,” she added.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Aiyanna Smith added. “I think when we think about the impact of Powwow in our community, it’s not just the main event that the public sees. It’s all of the things that lead up to that event. It’s all of the family gatherings, it’s the preparation of foods. It’s the preparing the regalia. … So it’s definitely going to be different, but I’m looking forward to getting creative, and finding some ways to still enjoy some of my favorite aspects of Powwow.”

Mr. Gumbs said it’s going to be a “very weird experience,” but he is looking forward to it, nonetheless.

Lance Gumbs

“It’s the only thing that I’ve known my entire life on this weekend,” he said. “I’ve never been anywhere else for my entire life, but at Powwow. … I have some cousins coming down and we’re going to have a little celebration here in my yard. I have a very large yard, so I have some cousins coming down with their RVs and we’re going to build a campfire in the yard here, and we’re going to obviously cook. And we’re going to play the drums and sing.

“And so it is going to be a strange feeling, but we are definitely going to make the best of it. We are going to have a fire lighting and the raising of our tribal flags on Friday night,” he added. “So we are going to open the event and then go into a virtual event. And then we are going to close it out on Monday, the same way we do and with the lowering of the flag and having to close out ceremonies, but it’ll just be internal and virtual.”

A Path Forward

As the Shinnecock Nation leaders continue to strive to create economic opportunities to help sustain their members, they noted in the Sessions event that it is impossible to escape feelings of past prejudices that they say have been roadblocks to the Nation’s economic development.

They pointed to initial resistance they faced when erecting billboard monuments on Sunrise Highway last year, opposition to a medical cannabis facility currently under construction and a proposed gas station on the tribe’s Westwoods property in Hampton Bays.
Mr. King noted that every time they have pressed forward with a development plan, they seem to meet resistance from the surrounding community and the state and local governments.

Randy King

“It’s not about really what you want to bring to the table,” Mr. King said, “because there are a lot of ideas that we’re looking at right now to bring economic development, working for sustainability with the era of COVID. But just to add to the frustration that Becky just vocalized on, is that we’ve held this land since time immemorial, and from 1640 to 1703 to 1859, you would think that any other type of community or special interest group or whatever, we’re a Nation. We don’t forget the injustices that happen to us.

“And these dates, which maybe a couple of hundred years ago, they’re still fresh in the minds of our people, because what happens is when you lose your land base, you lose effective jurisdiction,” he added. “You lose the ability to create economic development. And we see efforts by the state of New York, which to this very moment seeks to create obstacles for us to enjoy economic development.”

Mr. Gumbs added that the projects currently underway — and plans that remain to somehow employ gaming into the future development of the tribe — will move forward and will finally allow for a measure of sustainability to the Nation.

“The sign project itself is going to be a very lucrative project, once we set up the other side on the other side of the highway there. Obviously, we’re started the medical cannabis, and that will be extremely lucrative. And then, once again, we’ve continued our quest for gaming and how we’re going to move forward with that in terms of economic development and as an economic development engine.

“… We’re not going to put all of our eggs in one basket,” he added. “We are going to have a diversification of economic development for the tribe that will suit us very well in the future, because we won’t be relying on just one entity. It’ll be multiple entities that will support the tribe and all of our social programs as we move forward.”

Aiyana Smith

Aiyana Smith added that Shinnecock members have felt frustrated by previous efforts to undo their plans, but said she looks forward to bridging those divides.

“Like my previous tribal members stated,” she said, “we’ve experienced tremendous amount of oppression over the course of hundreds of years. And we are a typical working class community. Everybody’s doing the best they can do to provide for their families and take care of their loved ones, no different from any other American society.

“Every time that we’ve organized our way in such a fashion that we’re able to pursue economic development opportunities,” she added, “we’re met with tremendous barriers and tremendous hurdles to get over. So in that sense, I think there is truly a sense of frustration, that every time we move forward with a project, we get hit with these hurdles. …

“But I think it’s a mixed feeling. We truly live in two worlds. And I think there also is a sense of pride that goes along with that, when we do accomplish something. … We build on that resiliency to allow us to create a better future for the generations that are yet to come.”

Mr. Polite said that there has been some push back on the cannabis project, but he noted that the economic development projects the Nation members are building are meant to benefit the entire tribe.

“These economic projects that we’re engaged in is not just about economics,” he said. “It’s about survival. It’s about reclaiming our ancestral homelands that were stolen from us. If the [governments and residents] aren’t going to help us, we will do it ourselves. And this project, it also has the potential to employ a hundred people. So again, I go back to, you always act distasteful to people that we’re trying to employ a hundred Shinnecock tribal members.”

Mr. Polite ended the Sessions event with a message to the larger community, one of inclusion and the hope that everyone can work together to help the Nation survive into the future.

“I want to thank the Southampton community for listening,” he said. “I hope that you guys have learned a little bit about us today and in the future. I hope that you support the endeavors of the Shinnecock Nation instead of trying to stand in the way of not all community members, but those that are detractors to come.

“Talk to us. We’ve been here for thousands of years and we’ll answer your questions.

“And, I just want to express to everybody during this COVID pandemic to keep seeing visually and keep staying safe, thank you.”