Sylvester Manor Teams Up With Shinnecock, Other Native Groups, In Burial Ground Study

A view of the Afro-Indigenous Burial Ground at Sylvester Manor. Courtesy Sylvester Manor

In what organizers say is an effort to recognize the common bonds of diverse people who make up the East End, Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island has announced that it will partner with the Shinnecock Nation’s Graves Protection Warrior Society and other representatives of Long Island’s Native-American tribes in the Afro-Indigenous Burial Ground Partnership at Sylvester Manor.

The first order of business, according to Donnamarie Barnes, Sylvester Manor’s archivist and curator, is to focus on an initial study of the manor’s Afro-Indigenous Burial Ground that will begin this week under the direction of Dr. Stephen Mrozowski of the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The cemetery, where slaves and later free Blacks were buried, is believed to have first been a burial ground of the Native-American Manhansett people who once lived on Shelter Island. It was used until early in the 20th century. As many as 200 people are believed to be buried there, Ms. Barnes said.

Last winter and spring, Sylvester Manor groundskeepers carefully cleared growth away from the old burial ground, revealing a number of fieldstones that could possibly mark additional graves, Ms. Barnes said.

The initial project calls for an archaeological survey of the old burial ground to better define and map its boundaries and ground penetrating radar studies to determine how many graves are present, she said. The first phase of the project will be held this week, from Friday through Sunday, and be continued the first weekend in October. A public ceremony and blessing will take place at the site at 4 p.m. on Friday, September 24.

Since the goal is to learn about who was buried in the cemetery, “we could only do that if we included members of the Shinnecock and other indigenous people of Long Island,” Ms. Barnes said.

In a press release, Dr. Mrozowski said, “This project will usher in a new era of collaboration that seeks to right the wrongs of the past while charting a future shaped by indigenous voices. Archaeology owes nothing less to the indigenous peoples of Long Island — this is, after all, their land and their history.”

Besides the Graves Protection Warrior Society, Sylvester Manor is working with the Unkechaug Nation as well as Honor Our Indigenous Ancestors, Inc., an umbrella organization that represents other Native Americans on Long Island.

“We are happy they reached out to us and are asking to participate this way,” said Shane Weeks, co-chairman of the Graves Protection Warrior Society. “We are hoping this will serve as a model for other institutions that may want archaeological work done. Or maybe they don’t know they wanted it done. This will shed light on the importance that is should be done.”

Mr. Weeks said he was also grateful for the way Dr. Mrozowski was approaching his work. “He wants to follow our lead,” he said, noting that graves will not be disturbed as part of the study. “Instead of digging things up for a college or university, he is conducting this study for our benefit.”

“This partnership will have a transformative impact not only on our ongoing archaeology work at Sylvester Manor, but how we tell the history of this place, whose stories we tell, and how we use this 235-acre property in the future,” said Stephen Searl, Sylvester Manor’s executive director. “This project has the potential to be a model for archaeologists, historians, and culturally significant sites around the nation.”

Besides attending the opening ceremony, the public has been invited to visit the Afro-Indigenous Burial Ground during this weekend’s project.