When Kelly Dennis was a third-grader at Our Lady of the Hamptons school in Southampton, she put her heart and soul into a writing project, a picture book titled “I Asked My Mom Why?”
Over the course of several pages — which feature colorful and intricate illustrations by her mother, Denise Silva-Dennis — Ms. Dennis tells the story of conversations she had with her mother about Shinnecock tribal leadership.
The question referenced in the book’s title surrounds the laws at the time that forbade women from serving on the Tribal Council, and even barred them from speaking at council meetings. It was 1991, and her father, Avery Dennis Jr., had just been elected to serve as a trustee. In the book, Ms. Dennis recounted the tribe’s history of respecting female leadership, and how, prior to the passage of a 1792 state law that set up a three-member, all-male trustee leadership system, a “Sunksquaw” (an Algonquin word that means “primary woman”) would be appointed as the leader of the tribe. In the book, she expressed pride at the job her father was doing as a trustee, but lamented the fact that there had been an erosion of trust in female leadership, and that women were not afforded the same chance as men to help the tribe and improve the lives of their fellow members.
The book’s final page has a drawing of male and female tribal members holding hands while standing on the shore and looking out at the open water. Ms. Dennis wrote: “My dad says that by the time I’m grown up there will be women trustees. I asked my mom, ‘Why can’t women be trustees now?’ and she said, ‘Don’t worry, the women of Shinnecock waited for 200 years, I know that the great day is coming soon.’ She said it will be the day when men and women begin to work together equally for the sake of our children’s future.”
Ms. Silva-Dennis was, of course, correct. On December 21, 1993, there was an official tribe meeting and Shinnecock women were extended the right to vote. An official written constitution in 2013 included the position of Sunksqua — an elder woman age 55 or older who has the role of promoting, enhancing and securing the traditions, history, language and cultural values and practices of the Nation.
On Saturday, a full circle moment that had started 30 years ago was completed, when Ms. Dennis was officially inducted as the newest member on the Shinnecock Nation Council of Trustees.
Ms. Dennis is not the first Shinnecock woman to serve on the tribal council — Nichole Banks served as a councilwoman in 2013. But her ascension to the role is particularly poignant given the desire she’s had from a young age to see more leadership opportunities for women within the tribe.
Ms. Dennis had a well-earned reputation as someone who worked passionately to help improve life for tribal members long before she decided to run for trustee. After graduating from the Ross School, and then from Middlebury College in 2007, Ms. Dennis earned her law degree and certificate in American Indian Law from the University of New Mexico in 2012. In 2015, she started work as an in-house tribal attorney for the Nation, and has used her expertise to benefit the tribe, working closely with the trustees on matters related to land and water rights, sacred sites, tribal sovereignty, economic development, contract drafting, federal grant compliance and more.
That she’d be compelled to run for trustee is not surprising given that Ms. Dennis’s father and grandfather played large roles in tribal leadership, while her mother, the elder Ms. Dennis, has always devoted her time and energy to community projects and leadership. But Ms. Dennis said there was a specific moment several years ago that solidified her determination to run for trustee.
Before going to law school, Ms. Dennis worked at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 2007, when the Nation was in the thick of its fight for earning federal recognition, Ms. Dennis attended a meeting with the Shinnecock Trustees (which was still an all-male body at that time), and was asked to speak on the matter of the pending federal recognition request. Ms. Dennis said she remembered being honored to have the opportunity to share her perspectives on the long fight for federal recognition based on the Shinnecock Hills that were stolen in 1859 and the need for Shinnecock to obtain federal recognition status to obtain litigation assistance to obtain redress for these stolen lands and importance of forming government-to-government relations in the hopes that it would assist the tribe, in the hope that it would assist the tribe in its efforts. Her presentation drew praise from Carl Artman, who was then the assistant secretary of the interior for Indian affairs. He asked her if she’d ever consider running for a leadership position within the tribe.
At that moment, Ms. Dennis said one tribal trustee responded vehemently against that suggestion.
“I won’t put it in the exact words that he put it, but he basically said, ‘As long as I live, there will never be a woman trustee,’” Ms. Dennis recalled. She did not get into it with the member, who she did not identify, but said it was a transformative moment.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’ll show you one day,’” she said. “‘If nobody else before me shows you, I’ll show you.’”
Ms. Dennis said the moment crystallized her decision to attend law school, and choose a career path that would benefit the tribe.
“At that point, I knew I was going to have to work five times as hard as anyone to earn respect,” she said.
The final push that led her to throw her hat in the ring, she said, was President Joe Biden’s appointment of Deb Haaland as secretary of the interior, making her the first Indigenous woman to hold the position.
“When that announcement came out, I almost lost my mind,” Ms. Dennis said, calling Ms. Haaland an inspiration and pointing out they went to the same law school.
The view that a woman should not serve as trustee or would not be as effective a leader as a man seems to have largely retreated in the modern era. Tribal Chairman Bryan Polite said he is thrilled to serve with Ms. Dennis, and believes she will be a valuable member of the council.
“Kelly has been a huge asset to the Nation for years,” he said. “Through her advocacy, she has helped with the Nation’s Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court regarding our land claims, helped draft the Nation’s medical cannabis ordinance, worked with a group to submit a successful application for the CTAS grant from the DOJ, and has helped countless tribal members in the legal arena.
“On a personal note, I have had the pleasure of growing up with Kelly and seeing her develop into an inspirational leader,” he continued. “Her insight, skill set, and connection to her culture and history will serve her well in her new position. I’m looking forward to working with Kelly and this Council to move the Shinnecock Nation forward.”
That belief that Ms. Dennis will thrive in her new position is shared by fellow tribal member Tela Troge, a cousin, who knows Ms. Dennis as well as anyone. Ms. Troge is also an attorney, and cites Ms. Dennis as inspiration for following that career path, and like Ms. Dennis, she has done a lot of work to help move the Nation forward. She calls Ms. Dennis a “natural leader,” a trait she said was evident from their childhood days, when Ms. Dennis would lead the other children in their family in activities like cleaning up trash and Styrofoam to protect the environment.
“When I heard the news that Kelly had become a Trustee, I immediately thought of the children’s book she authored as a child,” Ms. Troge said. “I thought of my mom who lived on Shinnecock for her entire life, but moved to Riverhead in 1992 when I was 5 years old. My mom is now a tribal elder and has never been able to vote in a tribal election.
“Kelly is not the first woman Shinnecock Trustee, but she is the first attorney to hold the position,” Ms. Troge added. “I know she will be empowered to exercise Shinnecock sovereignty having an extraordinarily in-depth knowledge and understanding of the current legal field.”
Ms. Dennis admitted that adding tribal trustee to her list of work and life commitments will make her even busier, but said she’s ready to embrace the challenge. When she’s not practicing law and serving in her capacity as trustee, Ms. Dennis will continue to embrace her passion for the arts, serving as arts administrator at the Watermill Center, and will spend time with her husband, Jacob Mark, who works as a chef.
While her commitments may leave little time for relaxation and leisure, Ms. Dennis said she is committed to serving the Nation on a variety of fronts that are near and dear to her heart.
“What’s important to me is defending and protecting not only our land, but our waters and our wildlife, and making sure that we develop projects only after a full environmental and social impact review,” she said. “It has also not been lost upon me that there are a lot of health and safety needs we need to meet as the pandemic continues. We really need to get on the other side of this pandemic.”