Lance Gumbs was on a mission to find misplaced beadwork in his mother’s shop last week when he saw them — the thick stack of files piled high on her desk.
It was like she had planned it.
Abandoning his original quest, Mr. Gumbs sat down, opened the first file and started to read. And for four and a half hours, he didn’t stop. When he closed the last one, he saw his mother and her legacy in a new light, her many accomplishments — a handful of which he never knew about — shining bright.
In those hours, he had come as close as he ever would to talking to her again.
Harriett Crippen Brown Gumbs, the matriarch and oldest female of the Shinnecock Indian Nation — a woman who lived her life as an educator, activist, feminist and historian — died on November 25 of natural causes. She was 99.
“She lived a long and actually wonderful life, with all the experiences that she was able to have and the things that she was able to accomplish,” Mr. Gumbs said. “She was a fierce woman warrior for the plight of our community and the protection of our lands, our language, our traditions and our cultural values.”
Ms. Gumbs, also known to the tribe as Princess Starleaf, was a trailblazer to her core. She paved the way for women to speak during tribal meetings and to vote. She led the charge in a 1950s court case that threatened Shinnecock land, and she played an integral role in the initial phase of the tribe’s federal recognition.
“She grew up in the Great Depression, she experienced segregation, she lived in a nation where she felt like her voice wasn’t being heard as a woman, and she still persevered throughout all of that,” her great-granddaughter Dyani Brown said. “She didn’t let that deter her from anything. It motivated her more to do bigger and better things, and just thrive — and that she did.”
In her daily life, Ms. Gumbs displayed kindness and strength in equal measure. She was driven, dedicated and ambitious, all sprinkled with her signature sass and beaming smile.
She loved to laugh and spend time with her family, which she defined not only by blood, but also by spirit — as was the case with Dennis Van Putten, whose multi-tribal lineage includes Shinnecock.
“She was a deeply giving and loving, loving human being. That is my most fervent recollection of her,” he said. “I will always look upon her as being ‘Mom.’”
He paused, collecting himself. “I say that and I get a bit choked up,” he said through his tears. “She was there for so many people, her wisdom was always delivered with such love and understanding. It’s with pride and love and affection that I speak of her and I will always, in our native way, speak her name. And therefore, she is always with us.”
An Activist in the Making
Harriett Crippen Brown Gumbs was born on March 6, 1921, on the Shinnecock Indian territory in Southampton, the eighth of 10 children to Arthur Emmitt Crippen and Harriet Ruben, who named her daughter “Princess Starleaf” — for “Harriett’s ideas were in the stars, but her feet were firmly planted on the ground, just as the leaf falls,” she had said.
The premonition proved to be fitting.
A 12th-generation descendant of the first Native Americans to greet Long Island settlers, the girl showed an interest in history from a young age, asking her own grandmothers — who were born in the mid-1800s — what their mothers and grandmothers remembered from the earliest days of their nation.
At age 9, she and her family moved to Southampton Village, and she soon blossomed into a highly intelligent and motivated student in the local school district, which fostered her love of reading and history, and playing trombone in the high school band. In 1937, the students took a trip to Washington, D.C., which, at that time, was operating under Jim Crow laws, segregating her from her classmates.
She was 16 years old.
“When they put her in a separate hotel away from her classmates because she was not allowed to stay with the white students, and then she had to drink from a water fountain that said ‘colored,’ it was a traumatic experience for her,” her son recalled. “But what it did was it helped her forge her mentality to fight for justice and equality for all people.”
In that moment, she became a lifelong activist, devoted to challenging the inequities of the world. And that began with addressing issues within the Shinnecock Nation itself.
“She set the example for me and my brothers, and for the grandchildren, the great-grands, that there’s nothing that you can’t do or accomplish if you put your mind to it,” Mr. Gumbs said. “I had said one time, ‘Persistence overcomes resistance every time,’ and she said, ‘That’s what I’ve lived by my entire life.’”
Coming Into Her Own
After graduating from high school in 1939, Ms. Gumbs enrolled at the Naval Secretarial School in Bayonne, New Jersey, and, after graduation, earned her insurance and real estate license from the Delehanty Business Institute in Manhattan, where she met U.S. Airman Phillip D. Brown III.
The couple married in 1941 and, together, they performed in a United Service Organizations band at local army barracks — she as a singer. When he deployed two years later, she moved back home to Southampton, where she gave birth to their son, Phillip D. Brown IV, before moving back to New York to work as a supervisor at Western Union.
In 1944, her husband was reported missing in action and, once again, she moved home — only to convince two of her brothers to build her a storefront on the front lawn of their Southampton home, which they carted to Shinnecock on the back of a truck in 1951. It would become known as the Shinnecock Indian Outpost — it still stands at 42 Old Montauk Highway to this day — and she sold candy, native crafts and cigarettes there.
The then-tribal trustees contested her establishment, calling her an “up-street Indian,” which inspired her to, reportedly, run them off with a shotgun in hand. And they’re lucky she did, considering she was the first line of defense against Great Cove Realty’s attempt to invade the nation’s largely undeveloped highway front in 1952.
When they served Ms. Gumbs with a trespass order to vacate the land, she responded by spearheading a legal campaign to challenge the realty group’s claims, rallying the tribe to form the Better Indian Welfare Organization and Shinnecock Community Group. She drove door-to-door, gathering petition signatures from tribal members and off-reservation locals alike, proving by record and testimony that the land in question belonged to the Shinnecock.
“I was looking at a Southampton Press article from 1954 about it and it said that when she testified, she ‘rattled’ the courtroom when she started talking about how the lands had been stolen,” Mr. Gumbs said. “She managed to turn the tide on something that was pretty much a done deal.”
After her big win, her activism didn’t end there. In the 1960s — after marrying her second husband, Launcelot A. Gumbs Sr., in 1956 and having two more children, Mr. Gumbs and his brother, Edward Crippen — she decided to challenge Shinnecock men for the women’s right to vote in tribal elections and to speak at meetings, a longstanding rule since 1792 and a direct contradiction to the traditionally matriarchal society.
Backed by a group of women, Ms. Gumbs refused to stay silent, going so far as to bang on pots and pans when she needed to make a point.
“At one meeting, a trustee told my mother to shut the hell up and sit down and mind her place — and trust me when I tell you, that was the last time he ever said that because my brother and I just hopped over tables and everything else trying to get to him,” Mr. Gumbs said. “But the stage was set. As more and more women started to realize that they could have a voice, that law was finally changed in our community.”
In 1992, women finally earned the right to speak at tribal meetings, followed by the right to vote two years later. Ms. Gumbs would go on to become one of the most outspoken members of the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, and served 18 years as a legislative observer.
“We are originally a matrilineal society and the work that the women do, and the work that the women commit to, often is work that propels the nation forward. And Cousin Harriett was a primary example of that,” explained Andrina Wekontash Smith, whose great-grandmother was Ms. Gumbs’s cousin. “The strength that she exhibited with helping both the tribe and other people made me know that I come from a lineage of very strong women. The veracity of her strength has been present in every decade, in every iteration of her life’s journey.”
At age 51, Ms. Gumbs went back to school, graduating summa cum laude from Southampton College in just three years, with dual bachelor’s degrees in history and education in 1975. Four years later, she would go on to earn her master’s degree in legal studies from the Antioch School of Law for Native Americans in Washington, D.C., before returning to Shinnecock to assist the nation with historical research for its federal recognition petition.
In a letter that she wrote to President Richard Nixon in 1972, Ms. Gumbs had told him that she did not want to die before she saw the Shinnecock recognized by the federal government, and that the nation needed to be added to the national tribal maps.
She would see both come to pass — the latter came first, followed by the former in 2010. And she was absolutely “overjoyed,” said Mr. Gumbs, who is a former tribal chairman.
“Our federal recognition process was made with a lot of notes that she helped produce,” Ms. Smith said. “As a nation, sometimes on a reservation, the work can come down to individuals and the amount of work she was able to produce is just so admirable.”
In December 1982, Ms. Gumbs founded her own organization, the Northeastern Indian Human Development Center, and devoted much of her life to both teaching indigenous history and tutoring remedial students, pouring her faith into them when no one else would. She wrote two books and was frequently sought out by scholars and journalists interested in Shinnecock culture, past or present. She even appeared in National Geographic magazine.
The nonagenarian did not miss one Shinnecock powwow in her life, participating as a craft vendor at nearly every traditional gathering in the Northeast, navigating the powwow trail with her family by her side.
“She would instruct us in our history, but then take us out on the road to actually see and be a part of the living history,” Mr. Gumbs said. “It was just, like, family time. It was one of the greatest things and I have continued that with my family, going to the powwows and setting up our tents and camping out, and doing those kind of things that a lot of people in our community at that time did not do.
“A lot of our family have that desire to learn our history, and that was all instilled by her,” he added. “Those that had the opportunity to sit with her and talk with her always walked away with a jewel, with a golden nugget of information that they will be able to carry with them for the rest of their lives.”
Preserving, and Honoring, Her Legacy
Her passion for Shinnecock history cast Ms. Gumbs as the tribal historian, and all throughout the 1950s, she lectured at nearly every school on Long Island. She eventually advanced to the collegiate circuit, speaking at renowned universities across the Northeast — from Columbia, Harvard and Yale to Brown, John Hopkins and Penn State.
“A lot of that rubbed off on me,” recalled her cousin, Charles Certain. “I feel like I’m sort of, by force, the historian in my family and I’m also the computer geek, so my task was to take a lot of her documents and copy them, and make them digital. And in doing that, that brought me on into the historian mode.”
For a time, Mr. Certain worked in Manhattan as a personal trainer with clients who spent weekends in the Hamptons, and so he would cycle out to the territory and pitch a tent in his cousin’s front yard. He was always welcome, he said, partly because of her relationship with his father.
“They were, like, favorite cousins and she was like the sister that he never had,” Mr. Certain said. “I’m a junior, so even in her later years when it was getting tougher for her to remember who people were, I think she knew who I was just because of my dad’s name.”
After her sister, Florence, died in 2014, Ms. Gumbs descended into Alzheimer’s disease, Ms. Brown said. The two had been extremely close, she said, often escaping the territory to go off on wild adventures. On one such occasion, an all-night search party ended in Connecticut when Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Police spotted their van in the Foxwoods Resort Casino parking lot — where they found the sisters fast asleep, likely exhausted from a long night of gambling.
In some of her lucid moments, when Ms. Gumbs realized she was the last of her siblings left, she would look to her great-granddaughter. “I’m tired,” she’d say. “I’m just ready to go. I’ve been here a long time.”
For Ms. Brown, she said she knows her great-grandmother is now at peace, and so many members of the Shinnecock Nation, her life serves as a model of strength, courage, perseverance and unconditional love, which they will carry forward for generations to come.
“Whenever we lose an elder of that age, we lose a lot. We lose a bridge to our past, especially when they’re 99 years old,” Shinnecock Indian Nation chairman Bryan Polite said. “That’s a lot of knowledge, that’s a lot of history that passed. I think the legacy is carried over the best though her family members that she influenced and raised — her sons, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, her great-great-grandchildren — and other community members that she mentored and taught. So her legacy is long-lasting from the people that she influenced.”
In addition to her parents, grandparents and two husbands, Ms. Gumbs is predeceased by her three sisters, Anita, Mary and Florence Crippen; six brothers, Arthur, Edward, Alfred, Earl, Frank and Lawrence Crippen; a granddaughter, Paulette Harriett Brown; and a grandson, NaKea Lance Gumbs-Perry. She leaves behind 55 survivors — her three sons; a daughter-in-law, Carolyn Brown Gumbs; 19 grandchildren and six grandchildren-in-laws; 26 great-grandchildren and two great-granddaughter-in-laws; and 8 great-great-grandchildren — and countless nieces, nephews, cousins, and greats of the like.
“When a light bearer such as Cousin Harriett passes away, it’s important for the continuity of the tribe that that light is maintained,” Ms. Smith said. “I am by no means trying to take over the mantle or the light that she had, I don’t think one person could, but I do feel an enhanced responsibility to continue in the fight that she and so many of our other strong women dedicated their life to.
“While she may no longer be with us, there are definitely people who have inherited that light and that strength,” she continued, “and all I can strive to do is continue to add pieces of wood to the fire that she so expertly built.”
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to what will eventually become Princess Starleaf’s Historical Museum, which will display her extensive antique bottle and doll collection, as well as treasured memories that commemorate her life.
But above all, Mr. Gumbs sees it as a place where visitors can come in, sit down and read her papers — just as he did, for hours, sifting through the files that brought him closer to her.
“I think that’s the greatest gift that anyone can give, when you can really and truthfully honor someone and all of their accomplishments,” Mr. Gumbs said. “That’s the point of the museum, to have her legacy live on within our family and anyone who wants to come in and just look at all the paperwork and the research and all of the things that she has done.”