“Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you what kind of people you have,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot, referencing a Benjamin Franklin quote, at a work session on Friday, June 19. In the audience, dozens of Shinnecock tribesmen and women nodded in agreement as Kabot recited Franklin’s words, but tensions still ran deep as the group discussed a lack of town-wide protections for ancient Native American grave sites.
“This is all about justice,” said Shinnecock member Becky Genia. “There are laws to protect the marshland … but there are no laws to protect the graves of our ancestors. The first thing I would like to know is what has your [town] attorneys come up with.”
The members of the town board, however, said Friday’s meeting was meant as a roundtable discussion. Kabot added that a working draft legislation, originally authored by East Hampton lawyer George Stankevich in 2005, had been passed through three town attorneys and the current assistant town attorney, Joe Burke, still needed to be brought up to speed on the issue.
According to Burke, the town currently doesn’t have any laws or formal policies in place which protect historical burial sites. Stankevich’s proposed legislation also points out that federal laws specifically protecting Native American grave sites only protect remains on federally owned land. On the East End, however, most ancient grave sites are found on private property.
Stankevich’s proposed legislation calls for the creation of a Southampton Native American and Colonial Graves Protection and Repatriation Local Law, and a committee to oversee the implementation of the law. The draft law dictates that once a burial site is discovered, a property owner — or builder — must cease activity on the site until a final decision is made by the committee, the chief of police and the Suffolk County Medical Examiner. The proposed legislation also suggests that if a property owner and the committee cannot reach an agreement on how to handle the remains then the remains will be left on site and memorialized.
However, this last provision causes some concern for the board, says assistant town attorney Joe Burke who has taken over this issue for Southampton.
“There is a concern over property rights. We have to make sure the law doesn’t amount to a taking [of property]. We can’t take a property if there is no just compensation … that is a federal standard,” explained Burke. “My job right now is to look at other state laws around the country and see how they struck the balance between the two, [the grave sites and the property owners.]”
Burke added that only four states, including New York, do not have a law directly protecting grave sites, although the Shinnecock people can file their grave sites as historic landmarks with the state office of parks, recreation and historic preservation.
Some members of the Shinnecock, however, believe private property rights often trump the protection of ancient gravesites.
“All of our obstacles are because of the sanctity of private property. It has become paramount over all things,” said Chief Harry Wallace of the Unkezhoug nation of the Mastic and Shirley area, who is also a member of the inter-tribal historic preservation task force. “You want to protect the wetlands or a rare bird species. We are fewer than the rare birds and we aren’t growing anytime fast.”
Wallace and other audience members argued that if gravesite protection was high on the list of town priorities, then there would already be a law on the books.
Kabot contended that she has requested grave protection legislation for a number of years, but her efforts were met with opposition from previous town boards.
As of late, it seems the current town board is taking an interest in working with the Shinnecock Nation. Burke expects to meet with Stankevich sometime this week to go over his draft legislation and Shinnecock member Genia said the town recently scheduled an upcoming meeting to further discuss the issue.
Kabot, however, encouraged the Shinnecock Nation to assemble a report on the suspected Native American burial sites in the town to help both parties move forward.