Southampton Seeks To Extend Moratorium To Protect Shinnecock Grave Sites

Members of the Shinnecock Nation held a protest in January of 2020 at the site of a home being built in the Sugarloaf area. DANA SHAW

The Southampton Town Board unanimously passed a graves protection act last September, becoming the first municipality in New York State to establish protocols for what must be done if human remains are found on private property.

But the board continues to work on establishing guidelines for how to avoid ancient graves altogether, especially in areas known to have served as burial grounds for the Shinnecock Nation.

For that reason, the board will request that a moratorium on most construction work covering two areas, Fort Hill and Sugar Loaf, in Shinnecock Hills, be extended for three months when it meets on Tuesday, April 13, at 1 p.m.

“We have an idea of what the code is going to look like now,” said Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, “but we need another three months to finish it.”

In short, the supervisor said, “In this area, if you’re getting a building permit that requires excavation, you are going to have to do some archaeological work.”

The areas that are subject to the moratorium are divided into two sections. Moratorium Area A includes parcels north of Montauk Highway, including the land known as the Shinnecock Indian Contact Period Village Fort region, or Fort Hill. It is 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.

The second zone, Moratorium Area B, includes the Sugar Loaf Hill Shinnecock Indian Burial Ground Region, or Sugar Hill. It is bounded on the north by Montauk Highway, on the east by Southway Drive, on the south by Shinnecock Bay, and on the west by Peconic Road.

Members of the Shinnecock Nation have long pressed the town to take steps to protect their ancient burial sites, but that request took on new urgency in 2018 when remains were found at a construction site on Hawthorne Road in Shinnecock Hills. Mr. Schneiderman inquired about getting a stop-work order issued for the site, he said he was surprised to learn that there was no provision in the law for such an action.

“That was a shock to me that there was no state law that defined what you have to do if you find human remains,” Mr. Schneiderman said of the Hawthorne Road case.

In the end, the town acquired the building parcel in question, and the board set about to finally address the issue, although delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a brief protest at Town Hall by members of the tribe late last summer.

The town’s graves protection act applies townwide. If remains are found, police must be called to investigate. If they determine the site is not a crime scene, the town will hire an archaeologist to investigate and contact members of a committee charged with tracing the remains and determining whether they should remain on site or be reburied elsewhere.

This week, Mr. Schneiderman said it is hard for him to believe that New York State has no graves protection law, making it one of only four states in the country to not have such a law on the books.

“The tribe has waited a long time for legislation to protect the sanctity of their ancestral burial grounds,” he said. “These two pieces work together hand in hand. We don’t want to be in a situation where a burial is disturbed again.”