By Mike Pintauro
It’s not often that East End residents have an opportunity to witness history in action. But an event of both historical and spiritual significance took place last weekend among Southampton’s Native American community when dozens of members of the Shinnecock Nation boarded canoes at their Southampton reservation and embarked on a three-day paddle across the sound to visit sister tribes along the Connecticut coast.
It was the first time in hundreds of years that members of the tribes came together via canoe in a celebration that many hoped would bring peace of mind.
The trip across the open waters of Peconic Bay began on an overcast day last Friday morning. From a point on a bluff looking out over the water, it was barely possible to see the shores of the North Fork. Yet from this spot on the west side of the Shinnecock Canal, the second stop for the Shinnecock rowers who began their journey from Cuffee’s Beach on the Shinnecock Bay side of the reservation the night before, they would head north. Gathered in a circle, tribal members and friends held hands to make a spiritual connection, as they prepared to leave their tribal lands for those across the sound. Among the rowers was Chenae Bullock, whom, along with several others, was inspired to organize the trip.
“I had a vision this would happen after going out to the Northwest tribal canoe journey,” said Bullock who traveled with fellow members of the Shinnecock Nation to Washington State to take part in a similar paddle from Seattle to the Swinomish tribes. They were the only group representing the Eastern Coastal tribes. “They have over 90 to 100 canoes in the water at a time and I was hoping one day we would have canoes in the water like that.”
“You have to start somewhere,” she added.
This inaugural Shinnecock trip appeared to trigger great emotion in tribal members who gathered along the beach and out on the bay to provide prayers, thereby sending the canoe off in traditional Shinnecock fashion. Several Shinnecock members traveled alongside the canoe in support boats and periodically participated in the rowing.
From Friday’s launch point, the rowers paddled towards Conscience Point in Southampton, where they made a short stop before continuing on to the North Fork and, after a portage, to Connecticut.
As the rowers entered the mouth of the Thames River in Connecticut, Bullock reported that something amazing happened.
“I was singing a traditional paddle song, and there was a bald eagle that flew over our canoe and flew in the direction we were heading, and circled the Pequot territory,” said Bullock who described the experience as very powerful, given the rough weather and rough seas that blew them towards the Connecticut shores.
Once arriving safely in Connecticut, Bullock described how the Shinnecock rowers were joined by members of the Mashantucket Pequot Nation, who joined them in several other canoes to continue the trip upriver to Mohegan.
For many members of the Southampton tribe, the trip signifies a quintessential component of Shinnecock culture.
“This is bringing back our ancient traditions of crossing the sound and visiting one another again,” said Josephine Smith, Shinnecock Tribal Council Leader. “This is a way of teaching our children that this is a way of being together—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.”
The connection between the Shinnecock and the Mashantucket Pequots is strong and the tribes travel to one another’s festivals, pow wows, and funeral services. Tribal members, however, recognize the turmoil that exists in society and the difficulties it often poses in their lives today. So the Shinnecock look to find solace and strength in canoe trips like this one, which they hope will include members from more tribes in the future. For Bullock, last weekend’s trip served to strengthen not only the Shinnecock, but all coastal tribes.
“Our ancient way of life — this is the way we need to return to it,” she said, “It’s the way we need to live every day to help us not be so influenced by all of the negative forces that have been imposed upon us by greater society that we have often strayed into.”