Tag Archive | "Shinnecock"

Shinnecocks Learning an Old Language


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By Marissa Maier

According to James Crew, developer of T.R.A.I.L.S., a software that teaches, restores and archives indigenous languages, Wickham Cuffee was the last Shinnecock Indian Nation member to fluently speak the native language. Cuffee passed away in 1925. But the Shinnecock language wasn’t buried along with him. Though it has lain dormant for many decades, now a team of eight Native Americans, mainly comprised of members of the Southampton-based Shinnecock and Mastic-based Unkechaug nations, hope to wake this sleeping language giant through the revitalization of the Northeastern dialect of Algonquin, the language of the Shinnecock’s ancestors.

On Tuesday afternoon, the committee, which formed in August under the auspices of the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Enrichment Program, met in the basement of the Indian Education Program building on the reservation. The members swapped information about computer keyboards specially tailored to Native American languages and discussed the search for funding to host linguistic speakers at the Shinnecock reservation. For the past six months, this committee has vetted nearly every aspect of the emerging language education program — from the proper pronunciation of words to researching the best way to teach the Shinnecock language.

“These efforts have been many years in the making,” noted Josephine Smith, the cultural enrichment and language program coordinator. She pointed out that the committee’s efforts are piggybacking on a number of projects. Committee member Tina Tarrant added that in 1990, she and several others started a three-year project with grant monies. The group, she noted, combed through historical documents, hoping to help piece together the full Shinnecock language. Smith explains that though the Shinnecock language isn’t dead, it isn’t spoken with the same level of fluency as it once was.

“In 1876, [after 10 Shinnecock men died trying to save a stranded freighter, called the Circassian], there were all of these reports that that was the last of the Shinnecock,” remarked Smith. “That is like saying we aren’t here. We are still speaking the words and there is a degree of fluency. We know the colors or phrases. A number of us have learned words and teach those, like the words for ‘come here’ or ‘thank you.’”

Smith noted Algonquin words are used in the traditional Shinnecock songs, at special events and written into the program at the Shinnecocks’ famous pow wows. Many words have been incorporated into the English language, like moccasin and papoose, added Smith.

“Our language isn’t dead. As long as you know one word in your language it isn’t dead,” argued Smith. “This is about revitalization and maintaining the language.”

For Smith, and other members of the committee, language acquisition is vital to maintaining the Shinnecock culture. With the introduction of European settlers to the Southampton area in 1640, the fluency of the Shinnecock people in their native tongue has slowly eroded, said Smith. She added that English and the Christian religions of the settlers were imposed upon the indigenous tribe.

“English isn’t expressive of all things. For some reason the language has always been in our hearts. A lot of times people say, ‘I don’t know how to say [this emotion or concept],’ and this is because we aren’t speaking the language of our ancestors to express or describe something,” noted Smith. “Disconnecting people from their language is a way to disconnect them from their value system. Many people are seeing this and that is why there is a drive for language.”

According to a press release distributed by the Shinnecock, in August, 12 people from teenagers to tribal elders received four days of language training with T.R.A.I.L.S. The multimedia system trains students to become educators of an indigenous language on several learning levels. Committee member Deborah Arch said the phonetic nature of the program allowed her to retain more information. She has expanded her vocabulary of phrases and is working towards becoming a conversational speaker.

The committee members noted language acquisition and retention is often easier for children than adults. This is why the group is paying particular attention to teaching the native language to the youth in the community.

“The infants are the teachers of the future; and the future is bright for the native people,” said Crew. He recalled a recent story in which a Native American woman taught her daughter from infancy the language of her ancestors. The daughter became the first fluent speaker of the language since the 1700s.

On speaking the Shinnecock language, Smith’s daughter Cholena said, “If we could do that, we could think and do as they thought and did. Our people would be stronger and more unified for a better community.”

The committee hopes to kick-off formal language classes by the end of May; and in the meantime will start a series of fundraising initiatives to raise money for educational supplies, conferences and speakers. The Shinnecocks are also working with the Stony Brook University Southampton campus to create an Algonquin language institute, which would be the first of its kind in the country.

Although a fair amount of work is yet to be done, Smith believes it is worth the effort: “Language builds a better community.”

Shinnecocks Awarded Preliminary Federal Recognition

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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.

Town Debates Gravesite Protection and Private Property Rights

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web Gravesite

Over four months ago, the Southampton Town Board sat down with leading members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation and deliberated over creating a law to protect historic graves and funeral objects. Members of the local native American tribe expressed fears that the desecration of ancestral remains has gone unchecked on private properties. They pointed out that neither the state nor the town has a procedure on the books for how to handle the discovery of a grave site.

Last Friday, the board was once again visited by members of the Shinnecock Nation, but this time assistant town attorney Joe Burke brought with him a draft law entitled “Native American and Colonial Burial Site Protection.” Burke further noted that an “Unmarked Burial Site Protection Act” to regulate the discovery of burial grounds, human remains and funerary objects is making its way through the state senate. Burke contacted Senator Ken LaValle’s office and was told the act would likely be discussed when the senate goes into session in January. (New York State is one of four which doesn’t have grave site protection legislation.)

East Hampton attorney George Stankevich cautioned that the state senate has been mulling over similar measures for several years without yielding solid results.

“The reason we have come to you [the town board] is the inability to get this done,” argued Stankevich. He pointed out that when a mass burial site was discovered on Shelter Island in 2003, Shelter Island Town enacted an ineffectual policy and the graves were further desecrated.

“I am known as a private property advocate, but I welcome this type of legislation. It lays out a road map [for private property owners] and tells them how to do the right thing,” contended Stankevich. “We want to make this less punitive and more helpful.”

The draft law states that “any person, who in the course of ground disturbing activity, discovers a burial site, human remains or funerary object” must immediately stop their activity and contact the County Medical Examiner, the town police and the Southampton Town Burial Site Review Committee, which this law proposes to create.

Under disposing of the remains, the draft law says both the cultural group or descendants of the deceased will jointly decide what to do with the remains and send this recommendation in writing to the committee. The committee is then tasked with deciding how to handle the remains, which could include reburial on or off the site. The legislation further states that if “there is no practicable means of modifying the activity which led to the discovery of a burial site … the remains or objects shall be removed and re-interred in accordance with the direction of the appropriate culturally affiliated group or lineal descendant.”

Members of the Shinnecock Nation noted that their priority was to keep the remains or objects on site.

“If the landowner and the committee cannot agree, the remains should stay put,” remarked Stankevich.

Town attorney Dan Adams worried that the law could be a “defacto taking of property” by the town because having the remains on site hinders the development options of the property owner. Adams cautioned that the way the legislation is written right now might lead to lawsuits in the future. Stankevich, however, pointed out that he didn’t know of a case with a property owner refusing to keep the graves on site. He further noted that according to New York State public health law no one has the right to disturb a grave.

As written, town supervisor Linda Kabot contended there would be a financial impact to the town if a private property owner sued. In the case of an individual winning a lawsuit, the town would most likely have to purchase the land using Community Preservation Fund monies, added Kabot. The town recently purchased the former St. James Hotel site, where an ancient Shinnecock fishing village and a 1,000-year-old skull was discovered in 2006, with CPF funds.

During the meeting, Kabot pointed out that the legislation should safeguard the town from any lawsuit, which could be achieved through changing the language of the law.

“I think we need to spend more time fleshing this out,” argued Kabot. 

The Algonquians Had the East End All to Themselves, Until…

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by Jim Marquardt

Before there was Sag Harbor, before the Hamptons even existed, the Woodland Indians of the Algonquian Nation enjoyed a relatively peaceful life on the East End of Long Island. The local Indians got along well together and spent their time hunting, fishing, planting crops and raising families. Several hundred years before the “beautiful people” discovered the Hamptons, beautiful people were already living here, and they didn’t have that long commute on weekends.

Italian explorer Giovanni Verrazano described the natives he met.

“The people excel us in size; they are of bronze color, some inclining more to whiteness, others to tawny color; the face sharply cut, the hair long and black, upon which they bestow the greatest study in adorning it; the eyes black and alert, the bearing kind and gentle.”           

They dressed modestly, not in bikinis or Speedos. The men wore breech cloths of deerskin front and rear, and in winter, robes of deer hide or animal fur. The women wore skirts and tops of deerskin while both braves and squaws wore skin moccasins, leggings and a belt.

One historian, William Golder, wrote that Indians lived in wigwams constructed by digging a circular trench two or three feet deep and 15 feet in diameter. They drove saplings into the trench and lashed the tops together to create a framework on which they laid grass mats. A hole in the dome let out smoke from a cooking and heating fire within the shelter. A replica of one of these dwellings sits outside the Shinnecock Museum on Route 27A, a little east of Southampton College.

 The women cultivated corn, beans and squash, prepared meals and clothing, and wove fish traps and nets while the men hunted and fished and chased the occasional whale that appeared offshore (today’s husbands would love a deal like that). They also ground chestnuts and acorns to make flat bread. Meat sources abounded – raccoon, opossum, fox, squirrel, groundhog, rabbit, beaver, muskrat, and, most importantly, deer. John Strong, a professor of history at Southampton College who has written extensively about the East End Indians, says that the natives here usually prepared communal meals in a large stew pot made from clay. And long before today’s sophisticated chefs discovered the technique, the Indians baked fish, fowl and small game in clay crocks to retain the juices and flavor. Clams, oysters, mussels and scallops were plentiful, and long before it became a special summer event, the Algonquians baked clams in pits heated with red hot stones and covered with eel grass.

Cynics probably think wampum was invented by Paramount Studios, but it actually was an important art and craft. The East End Algonquians had a ready supply of hard clam shells, especially quahogs, which the women (in their spare time) laboriously fashioned into wampum beads using crude stone and bone tools. Wampum adorned necklaces, bracelets and decorations for clothes and moccasins, and was assembled into bands and belts which conveyed messages to other Indians and later were a form of exchange with Europeans.

Colonists from Massachusetts arrived in North Sea Harbor in Southampton in 1640, seeking to establish a village, procure land and plant crops. The local Indians were friendly and helped the settlers survive their early difficult years. But a critical confusion involving land ownership eventually arose. To the Indians, says John Strong, land was part of nature to be used by all the people and it made no sense to divide it into privately owned parcels. Europeans considered land a commodity that could be bought and sold, as we do, or try to do, today. Indians considered goods and gifts from colonists as gestures of friendship for simply sharing access, not as payment for land. This cultural discord inevitably led to disputes when the Europeans claimed property ownership and wanted to keep it for their own use.

Strong notes that popular history generally lists 13 tribes on Long Island, as if these were formal sub-tribes within the Algonquian Nation. Initially, there were no such official entities, the Indians more likely identifying themselves with clans or communities. After 1650 a tribal system emerged among the Montauketts, Shinnecocks and other groups as a means of survival against encroaching English settlers. (Even today, hundreds of years later, stresses continue. The Shinnecocks are pressing Southampton for protection of newly discovered burial sites which might be found on private properties.) 

Place names grew into tribal names. The Montauketts living in the area from Bridgehampton to what became Montauk Point and Gardiner’s Island, took the Algonquin word for “a fortified place;” the Shinnecocks adopted the word for “at the level land” covering Eastport to Bridgehampton; the Manhasets’ name means “island sheltered by islands” from their home on Shelter Island; and the Corchaugs, dwelling from Wading River to Orient, used the Algonquian term for “principal place”. Their numbers were surprisingly small. Several sources say there were perhaps 6500 Indians on all of Long Island in the mid-17th century with 500 more or less in each tribe.

A chief or sachem headed each of the small tribes, mainly through respect and persuasion, exerting power only when necessary. Like a chairman of the board, the chief of the Montauketts, Wyandanch, was grand sachem of the East End Indians, and the primary contact with English colonists. He was regularly criticized as being too accommodating. Though the Algonquians on the East End were peaceful people, they were forced to defend themselves against aggressive clans from Connecticut and Rhode Island. Ninigret, sachem of the Rhode Island Niantics, was a constant threat and in one episode raided the Montauketts, kidnapping Wyandanch’s daughter, supposedly on her wedding day. Wyandanch asked for help from the English, and Lion Gardiner came to his aid. Wyandanch’s tribulations will be recounted in another article.

To learn more about the lives of the East End Indians and see some of their handicrafts, visit the Shinnecock Museum (287-4923) in Southampton or the Southold Indian Museum (765-5577) on the North Fork. Be sure to call ahead for open hours.

Shinnecock Want Protection for Ancient Gravesites

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“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.

Tribe’s Traditions Played Out in Pageant


web Miss Sinnecock Teen Pageant 09_7260

As the teenage girls lined the stage dancing in traditional costumes of fringed buckskin or brightly colored dresses with attached conical bells, it was clear the 2009 Junior Teen and Teen Shinnecock Beauty Pageant was unlike the typical beauty pageants broadcast on TV. The Shinnecock event included all of the components found in these televised pageants, such as an evening wear and a talent portion, but whereas these beauty pageants are often ridiculed for being superficial, the Shinnecock Beauty Pageant highlighted the contestants’ Native American ancestry and cultural identity.

Throughout the pageant, held on Friday at the Southampton Inn, the young girls — ranging from grades 6 through 12 — seamlessly showcased both their traditional Shinnecock persona and their main stream one. In preparation for the main event, the girls studied not only ballroom dancing, etiquette and how to walk with a book on their heads, but also the history, language and culture of their people.

“This event shows how these young girls cross between two worlds: the modern world and the traditional one,” said Shinnecock trustee Frederick Bess. “When these girls learn how to talk they learn how to sing [the traditional songs]. When they learn how to walk they learn how to dance [the traditional dances].”

The event has been on a 13-year hiatus, but was brought back this year by the 1996 Miss Teen Shinnecock winner Nishwe Williams, whose deceased aunt Vanessa Williams started the competition in 1988.

“This is definitely not a beauty pageant. They are judged on their creativity and how they present themselves,” said Williams. “It emphasizes building self-esteem and pride in their culture.”

The girls’ sense of dual cultural identity was emphasized during the talent portion of the competition. Nadonis Tarrant, 17, displayed her painting titled “The Urban Indian” to the judges, including U.S. Congressman Tim Bishop and former tribal chairman Lance Gumbs. The large work showed an anonymous face, painted in white and black, surrounded by renderings of traditional Native American fabrics, painted in brilliant colors.

“When the Indian and [the modern world] collides … they make the urban Indian,” said Tarrant.

Other contestants chose to highlight either their traditional roots or popular culture. For her talent, Junior Teen winner Mattah Wright, 13, did a “fancy” Shinnecock dance, as the name refers to the type of dance and attire which is an updated take on the classic blanket dance. Wright waved an exuberantly colored shawl in the air as she did intricate footwork across the stage, while her father, Shinnecock trustee Gordell Wright, sang on the sidelines. Nasha Hill, 13, who competed in the Junior Teen pageant, opted instead to sing a blues ballad, “All I Could Do Was Cry” by Etta James and wore a 1940s-style outfit and pinned her long black hair into a wavy bun. Much of the make up and contemporary wear the girls wore was donated by local companies.

The evening, however, wasn’t solely dedicated to demonstrating various talents or modeling evening gowns. Instead, the event began with each girl dancing on stage in traditional costume. Some girls donned buckskin floor-length dresses while doing the slow, contemplative “blanket” dance. Others bounced up and down, jingling the tiny sliver bells affixed to their gowns. While others stretched out their brightly colored shawls, sweeping them from side to side, doing the “fancy” dance.

The first portion of the competition was dedicated to a question and answer session on Shinnecock history and each girl introduced herself in the native language. Younger girls were asked to list three important aspects of traditional culture, and many cited the Shinnecock Labor Day Pow Wow and the importance of family ties on the reservation. Older girls were asked what Shinnecock traditions could be imbued onto the surrounding community. Miss Teen Shinnecock winner Autumn Rose Williams said the Shinnecocks helped sustain the European colonists when they first arrived to the East End, by showing them how to cultivate the land. Williams added, however, that the Shinnecocks had a tradition of respecting the land and said current residents of both Southampton and the Shinnecock reservation needed to “protect the land for future generations.” 

“I didn’t realize how lucky it is to live on the land that our ancestors lived and died on,” said Seneca Smith, 15, of the Shinnecock reservation, which unlike federally owned reservations, is owned by the Shinnecock community.

While some contestants said they effortlessly transition between their life on the reservation and their life outside, others say they find it difficult.

“It isn’t that much different. I know I am a Shinnecock Indian, that is just what I am,” said Hill.

Cholena Smith, 16, the first runner-up in the teen category, reported having a difficult time crossing between these two worlds.

“I find it hard, especially this year. What we learn in school is so different than what we learn on the reservation. In school, we are learning about evolution and existentialism  … I feel like I am living in two worlds and always feel like I need to explain myself,” opined Smith. “That is why in every school project I make sure to include something about my heritage.”

Smith, an upcoming senior at the Ross School, plans to create a DVD book written in both English and Shinnecock for the school to use in a Native American education program.

As winners, Wright and Williams will act as representatives of the Shinnecock Nation at several “Pow Wows, held in New England and New York, throughout the summer and their travel expenses will be paid for by the Alternatives Counseling Center.

Nishwe Williams said girls are already signing up to compete in next year’s pageant, which is a welcome change since the pageant went on hiatus in 1996 because not enough girls were willing to join.

“The year I was in it we were down to six girls … Now there is a new generation and they want to do things like this,” said Williams. “I think they were waiting for something like this.”