On Tuesday, the Department of the Interior released a preliminary approval to add the Shinnecock Indian Nation to the list of federally recognized tribes. After filing their first petition with the U.S Bureau of Indian Affairs – a division of the DOI – in 1978, Tuesday’s ruling brings the Shinnecocks one step closer to ending a 31 year struggle for recognition from the federal U.S. government. A final verdict in favor of the Shinnecocks would allow the Indian Nation to build a casino and to apply for governmental grants. Earlier this year, the Shinnecocks were awarded an expedited review of their file, shaving five to ten years off the process for recognition.
Above: Shinnecock Trustees Frederick Bess and Gordell Wright, who helped the Nation in its attempts for federal recognition.
“To become federally recognized by the Department of the Interior, a tribe needs extensive documentation like birth certificates and lists,” noted Shinnecock trustee Frederick Bess in a June interview. “You have to prove that you are a community and have a working government.”
“I believe we are one of the most well documented tribes,” he added. “Most tribes who apply for federal recognition by the DOI have only a few thousand pages of documentation, but we submitted around 40,000 pages of documents.”
A press release distributed by the Shinnecock Nation on Tuesday claimed federal recognition would allow the tribe to apply for federal grants for housing, health care and education and “to pursue economic opportunities, including gaming.” For the past several years, the Nation has explored the possibility of establishing a Class II casino. According to the National Indian Gaming Commission, a “Class II” gaming facility includes bingo, card games and lottos. Although the designation allows the use of technological aids in gaming, it excludes the use of slot machines.
“Gaming is one tool offered by the federal government to become self-sufficient and self-determining … In order to establish a casino we would have to go into a compact with the state. The state would get a certain amount of the money made,” said Bess during an earlier interview. “[After receiving federal recognition] we would still have to sit down with the governor to find a location for a casino that works from a practical business sense.”
Bess also pointed out that a casino would infuse some much needed income into the Nation.
“It is very hard to generate money here because we basically have no tax base. We don’t have property or income taxes here for our people,” he remarked. “We are a very modest community.”
In addition to the economic benefits of federal recognition, the ruling also legitimizes the tribe in the eyes of the federal government which many tribe members contend is long overdue. The Shinnecocks have inhabited the East End for close to 10,000 years and they once possessed 3,600 acres of land. After the arrival of European settlers, the Shinnecock boundaries were slowly whittled away and in 1859, the New York State legislature formally deeded the tribe 800 acres south of Hill Street in Southampton. The Shinnecocks still inhabit this acreage, and their reservation is recognized by New York State.
“This [federal] recognition comes after years of anguish and frustration for many members of our Nation, living and deceased,” noted Shinnecock Board of Trustees Chairman Randy King in a press statement. “As Indian people, even though we’ve maintained who we are for generations, and surrounded by some of the wealthiest communities in the country, perhaps this recognition will help some of our neighbors better understand us and foster a new mutual respect.”
According to a press release penned by Nation officials, the preliminary ruling issued by the DOI opens a public comment period for 90 days, though this may be stretched to 180 days. The Shinnecocks expect a final ruling as early as June 18 of next year.