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Shinnecock Trustees Gordell Wright and Frederick Bess

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Last Wednesday, officials from the Shinnecock Indian Nation and Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot sat down with members of the Office of Federal Acknowledgement for preliminary proceedings regarding the Nation’s application for federal recognition. For nearly three decades, the Shinnecock Nation has lobbied the federal government for official recognition, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs is expected to reach a preliminary verdict on their application by December. Shinnecock trustees Gordell Wright and Frederick Bess discussed the case, the tribe’s history and what this verdict means to the Shinnecock people.

How long have the Shinnecock people lived on the East End?
G: Basically, we have been here for 10,000 years or more. This gives you a time span of how far back our people go.
F: Archaeologists have used carbon dating of pottery and other Indian artifacts dug up in Southampton to show how old our tribe is. The Old Fort Site dates back almost a thousand years. Sugar Loaf Hill is just as ancient. There is a well-documented ancient Shinnecock village on or near Bullhead Bay as well. The history of our tribe is very well documented.

How large is the land owned and controlled by the Shinnecock Nation?
G: At present, we have title to approximately 1,000 acres of land, in two parcels.
F: We have 80 acres in Hampton Bays and more than 800 acres south of Hill Street, but our aboriginal land stretched at least from what is now the Brookhaven Town line to what is now the East Hampton Town line – essentially, we had aboriginal title to the entire area of what is now the Town of Southampton. As the years passed, our land holdings became smaller and smaller, through theft and misappropriation by English settlers.

How does it feel to be a part of a group of people who can trace their roots back thousands of years, in a time when many have very little knowledge of their ancestry?
G: To be part of such a group … such a people … It is a hard feeling to put into words. Our culture is so tied to the land and the land is us. There is a strong sense of pride and cultural identity among our people, which helps us carry on the tradition. It can bring you to tears sometimes.
F: We are the caretakers of this land. We were here before the English settlers. But it can be hard to hold onto our land and our traditions when we are smack dab in Main Street America.

How do you continue passing down your traditions and continuing your way of life?
F: We have a word of mouth tradition. The old stories are passed down from grandparent to grandchild and then they pass them down to their grandchildren
G: Every Wednesday, we hold social classes. Sometimes we teach regalia or dances. It takes a lot to make sure our stories continue. It is a community effort. Hunting, fishing and clamming is also a part of our tradition, though most people wouldn’t say that that is culture.
F: In the last few years, we have brought back the making of our famous Wampum. Wampum used to be traded amongst the tribes. It is made from clam shells and slowly we have been bringing it back. Wampum signified coming together and would seal deals and treaties. It is a very common thing for tribes on the Eastern Coast.

How long has the Shinnecock Nation been petitioning for federal recognition?
F: The first petition was filed back in 1978 … But you really need to understand the history of how we got this land. Back in 1703, the settlers took our land illegally and then leased part of it back to us for a term of 1,000 years. But in 1859, the New York Legislature illegally approved a termination of that lease in return for ‘giving’ us a deed for some 800 plus acres south of Hill Street we already had the right to use for 1,000 years. We are trying to undo that illegal land grab in court right now.
G: Most of our land was basically stolen because New York State made the land swap using a forged petition, which was illegal according to the laws at the time. We had 3,600 acres, but we had to settle for much less because the tribe’s petition that led to the state legislature [approving the 1859 transaction] was forged … the signatures of long dead and under age tribe members appeared on the petition.
F: In 1978, we said that we wanted this land back and tried to have the federal government help us to do so, but they said we had to file for federal recognition which should have taken only a couple years. That was 31 years ago. When a tribe is federally recognized it means that they are under the jurisdiction of the federal government. This would bring a big change, from a practical point of view, in our relationship with the state and the town and make our people eligible for significant federal aid and assistance that only tribes recognized by the Department of the Interior may receive.

Why has it taken so long for the federal government to recognize the Shinnecock Nation?
F: We already have been federally recognized by a federal court – in 2005. Recognition by the Department of the Interior is a tangled bureaucratic process that takes a lot of time and research. To become federally recognized by the Department of the Interior, a tribe needs extensive documentation like birth certificates and lists. You have to prove that you are a community and have a working government. We have done that.
G: You have to prove these things going back to the founding of the United States [in the late 1700s], but we have filed all of the required historical documents, many of them from the records of Southampton Town.
F: I believe that we are one of the most well documented tribes. Most tribes who apply for federal recognition by the Department of the Interior have only a few thousand pages of documentation, but we have submitted around 40,000 pages of documents. And in 2005 a federal judge said we were a federal tribe as a matter of federal law. That should have been enough for the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs [who creates the list of federally recognized tribes and decides which tribes are added to the list]. In 2007, we sued the Department of the Interior to be added to the federal list. That lawsuit is pending.

Is that why your application for federally recognition has been expedited?
G: Basically, if we hadn’t sued them they would have taken their sweet time. Carl Artman [the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs] was the one who put together a waiver so that we could be expeditiously put on the active list of federally recognized tribes. That saved us about five to 10 years in the process of being federally recognized.

When will the BIA tell you if you have made the list?
G: We hope they will issue a proposed decision in December, with the final determination coming as early as 2010.
F: [This timeline] came out of our settlement of a part of our lawsuit against the Department of the Interior.

What are some of the benefits of being federally recognized?
G: You become eligible for certain federal grants and funds.
F: There is increased funding through the BIA for housing, education and health programs.
G: Right now, the way we run our operations is through grants. Everything we do is grant based. So if we don’t get a grant for an Indian Education Program, then there is no program.
F: It is also very hard to generate money here, because we have basically no tax base. We don’t have property or income tax here for our people. Our people also can’t take out mortgages because banks cannot foreclose on reservation land, which is held by the tribe in community ownership. There is very little that we can do to generate housing, so we have a lot of generational housing. A grandchild might move in with their grandparents when they are just starting their family. Instead of building a house, people will often add additional rooms when a child is born. We are a very modest community and we do the best we can. One of our biggest money makers is the PowWow that we hold over Labor Day Weekend.

Your community could be federally recognized by next summer. After fighting for decades for this, how do you feel?
F: We are very confident that it is going to go well because we are so well documented. The fact that we aren’t on that federal list is almost criminal.
G: But I think there is a mixed feeling in the community. People are excited that it is finally going to be done, but some are downright angry that we had to jump through all of these hoops to prove who we are.
F: The state has recognized us as a tribe since its inception and in 1974 the state legislature unanimously petitioned the federal government to recognize us, based on our long history of state recognition. Why should we have to prove we are Indians when we have had a documented board of trustees, governing us as an Indian tribe, since 1792?
G: At present, we have a board of trustees and a 13 member tribal council and dozens of other subcommittees.

In the past, the Shinnecock Nation has explored establishing a casino. If you become federally recognized, will the Shinnecock construct a casino?
G: That is one idea that is at the forefront of our ideas for economic development.
F: Gaming is one tool offered by the federal government to become self-sufficient and self-determining, but gaming is also highly regulated. We would probably pursue a Class 3 Casino, but in order to establish this we have to go into a compact with the state. The state would get a certain amount of the money made.
G: But a casino would also create jobs and infrastructure.
F: We would plan to establish a relationship with local unions and this project could be a significant employer and generate significant income for the state and the county in which it is located. Once a compact is made, it takes on average two years to build the casino. We still have to sit down with the governor to find a location for a casino that works from a practical business sense . . . Supervisor Kabot did say she was in full support of us being federally recognized, so is our local representatives and our congressman. In fact, Congressman Tim Bishop was here today in support of one of our other programs. We hope and expect to work with the state, county and town to reach a decision for casino location that all constituencies support.