Most who expressed an opinion on the proposed measures designed to protect sacred burial grounds in Shinnecock Hills felt they were long overdue. Those who spoke in opposition felt they unduly target a small number of landowners.
On May 26, the Southampton Town Board held a virtual public hearing on its Protection of Unmarked Graves act, as well two associated moratoriums. Opening the hearing,
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman made clear that he would vote to adjourn the hearings until the COVID-19 crisis was over and people could come to express their views in person. A tentative date for the next chapter in the discussion was set for July 28.
The proposed legislation includes regulations that apply townwide, while the two moratoriums laser in on areas more likely to have Shinnecock Nation remains and artifacts buried beneath the soil. New York is one of just four states in the country that lacks grave protection regulations.
Under the legislation, once suspected remains are unearthed, police must be called to investigate. If they determine the site is not a crime scene, the town’s archaeologist steps in and contacts the Southampton Town and Shinnecock Indian Nation Joint Cultural Heritage Protection and Stewardship Committee and the Southampton Historic Burying Ground Committee.
Members of the committees 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 development of the area where the remains were found.
The law additionally codifies the town’s willingness to purchase and preserve a property, should the owner be a willing seller.
David Donahue offered comments during the town’s Zoom hearing. He expressed concern about projects being held up when there’s a timeline on bank loans.
Supervisor Jay Schneiderman explained the process is designed to move “as quickly as possible.”
While archaeological finds could include remains from any segment of the ancient population, the moratoriums specifically hone in on areas previously known to accommodate Native American remains and artifacts. According to the notice for the first hearing, “The Town Board recognizes that there are numerous unmarked burial sites throughout the Town — and particularly within the Sugar Loaf Hill Shinnecock Indian Burial Ground and the Shinnecock Indian Contact Period Village Fort regions — which are of great cultural and historical significance to the people of the Town, particularly to members of the cultural and religious groups affiliated with them.”
The Sugar Loaf Hill Shinnecock Indian Burial Ground region encompasses those parcels 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 South Beach Road within the hamlet of Shinnecock Hills. The Shinnecock Indian Contact Period Village Fort region encompasses those 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 within the hamlet of Shinnecock Hills.
The second moratorium extends the targeted area to the east and west along Ridge Road and Peconic Road. Mr. Schneiderman explained it as taking the rectangular shape of the area selected for the first moratorium and “bumping it out.”
If adopted, the two moratoriums pause for six months the excavation, digging, grading, or re-grading of any unimproved lot within the Shinnecock Indian Contact Period Village Fort region or any improved or vacant lot within the Sugar Loaf Hill Shinnecock Indian Burial Ground region.
The board received 24 emails related to the topic. Of the four residents who wrote in opposition to the proposal, like Janine Abbatecola of Shinnecock Hills, they complained the moratorium disproportionately and negatively impacts a small number of landowners.
“The town should not be denying me my rights as the owner of my property, rights that I paid for when I purchased the property,” Ralph Carballal wrote.
The board received 19 email comments supporting the measures.
Shane Weeks, who is co-chair of the Graves Protection Warrior Society, said the law would help prevent further desecration to the sacred burial sites after they have already been disturbed.
“This law will help further desecration by imposing penalties on private land owners who do not report their finding and cease development. This law will also help many locals in their goal to preserve as much of the vacant land as possible in an effort to maintain the natural beauty and history Southampton has to offer,” he wrote.
Suzanne Ruggles wrote, “Imagine a bulldozer wantonly destroying a cemetery for new homes. Imagine how that would feel for you to see that happening. Just because the natives in our area did not leave monuments on their graves, that does not mean the graves are not there. The Nation knows where their graves are. This information has been passed down — throughout their history, they felt no need to map it, or write it, or chart it, or anything of the like. They hold this information in their hearts and souls. And their hearts and souls are what we continue to destroy.”
“Let’s stop the trauma. Let’s protect what’s left of sacred land. Let’s protect, as a start, Shinnecock burial sites,” she concluded.