Rebecca Genia, a member of the Shinnecock Nation, cannot conceal the frustration she feels when she talks about how Southampton Town has failed to enact legislation to protect the graves of her ancestors.
“It’s so they can continue to overdevelop and rape this land,” she said on Monday, August 24, the night before she and other tribe members and their supporters gathered in front of Town Hall to demand the Town Board take action.
After a testy exchange with Supervisor Jay Schneiderman —“You’ve done nothing but watch us suffer!” she said, as he repeated, “That’s a lie, that’s a lie.” — it seems that the pressure may have worked, as the Town Board on Tuesday finally closed a public hearing on a long awaited graves protection law that had been tabled time and time again. A vote on the legislation was tentatively set for September 8.
Ms. Genia will talk about the Shinnecock’s 20-year struggle to protect their ancestors’ graves at this week’s virtual Press Sessions event, “The Shinnecock Nation: What’s Next?” at 10 a.m. on Thursday.
She will be joined by five other tribal leaders on the panel: Bryan Polite, the chairman of the tribal Council of Trustees; Randy King, the council’s vice chairman; Lance Gumbs, tribal ambassador and northeast regional vice president for the National Congress of American Indians; Aiyana Smith, executive director of tribal operations; and Shavonne Smith, the tribe’s environmental director.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of the public portion of the tribe’s well-known annual powwow, which traditionally takes place over the Labor Day weekend. The event is probably the only contact many residents have with the tribe unless they stop to buy cigarettes at one of the many smoke shops along the Montauk Highway on tribal land west of Southampton Village.
Mr. Polite said the tribe will move ahead with a virtual three-day ceremony that will be limited to members performing at their own homes for livestreaming into the community on the tribe’s Facebook page. Vintage film footage from past powwows will also be shown, he said.
Although the powwow was once a major revenue generator for tribal operations, those days are long gone, he said. “Where it will have a big impact,” he said of the cancellation, “is on those tribal members who are vendors and rely on the powwow to buy back-to-school clothes or pay their bills.”
That, Mr. Polite said, is one reason the tribe is so intent on developing new sources of revenue for its members, such as a medicinal cannabis outlet, a food sovereignty program, and the construction of two large illuminated billboards and a gas station and convenience store on the tribal land along Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays
“For us, it’s not about an economic program, it’s about survival,” he said. The sign and gas station project has been delayed by a lawsuit brought by New York State and the pandemic, but Mr. Polite said he was confident work would begin soon.
For Mr. Gumbs, the sign project is a perfect example of a double standard that is used against the tribe. More than a decade ago, when it began planning a gaming facility, opponents said the project would increase traffic on the East End’s already crowded roads.
“So when we decided to make use of the traffic that was created by you for the sign project, it was still a problem,” he said of the uproar that followed when work began on the first sign tower last year. “Whenever we try to do something that would be good for the tribe financially, we are put into a box, but as long as we are good little Indians who stay on the reservation, it’s okay.”
Mr. Gumbs added that the tribe would one day revisit long tabled plans for a gaming facility. “Make no mistake, we are going to do gaming,” he said. “It’s just a question of where.”
For Aiyana Smith, the effort to improve the tribe’s financial base is about ensuring its future. “My role is helping our community develop over the next 25 to 50 years,” she said. “What do we want to do for our children? What do we want our lifestyle to be?”
She added that once the tribe received federal recognition in 2010, it had to update its governmental structure so it could work with federal agencies. “The picture I want to paint,” she said of Thursday’s event, “is we are a functioning government. We have an amazing team of people that does the best they can do.”
Mr. Gumbs added that many outsiders don’t understand the complexities of governing the tribe. “This is not your mom-and-pop Indian tribe,” he said.
In the past, Mr. King said, “the elders kept their business to themselves and did not share much with the outside world.” That has begun to change with tribal recognition and the return to Shinnecock of younger tribal members who have been exposed to the outside world and are returning to assume leadership roles and work to reclaim the tribe’s rightful place on its homeland.
One of those young leaders is Ms. Smith, who coordinates the tribe’s environmental efforts.
She said she hopes to impress upon Sessions listeners the importance of protecting the shared resource of water as the tribe partners with other governments to seek remedies for pollution. “We recognize there are concerns, and we are trying to get ahead of them,” she said, “or at least get in stride with them and try to dial them back.”
It is important, she added, for someone who uses the water for recreational uses only to be cognizant of the fact that others rely on it for a source of food. “It’s about being compassionate to others,” she said.
Mr. Polite added that he would be sure to talk about the loss of approximately 3,500 acres of tribal land in Shinnecock Hills as part of a fraudulent land deal in 1859. “We have never given up the fight to reclaim or get recognition for our Shinnecock Hills land,” he said.
Mr. Gumbs said many outsiders are unaware of the many indignities the tribe has suffered.
“We never talked publicly about our hurt,” he said, “because our views were never heard.”
To register for the Press Sessions event, visit Virtualsessions0827.eventbrite.com. The event is free to subscribers. There is a $10 fee for nonsubscribers.