Native American Tribe Reclaims Slice of the Hamptons after Court Victory

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Native American Tribe Reclaims Slice of the Hamptons after Court Victory

Shinnecock nation recovers ancestral lands in millionaires' Long Island playground after gaining federal recognition

by
Paul Harris in Southampton, New York

Members of the Shinnecock nation outside court in Central Islip, New York, after filing papers claiming tribal ownership of land in the Hamptons. (Photograph: Ed Betz)

From a distance the teardrop-shaped peninsula looks just like any
other bit of the famed Hamptons shoreline. Thick woods crowd down to
the water's edge, and through the trees houses and roads can be
glimpsed.

But this land is not part of the Hamptons, neither is it really part of the United States
any more. This patch – in the middle of the playground to Manhattan's
social elite – is proudly and fiercely Native American country.

Almost
four centuries since their first contact with the white man and after a
32-year court battle that has just ended in victory, the tiny
Shinnecock tribe has now been formally recognised by America's federal
government.

The decision means that the Shinnecock, numbering
some 1,300 members, many of whom live in deep poverty compared with
their wealthy neighbours, can apply for federal funding to build
schools, health centres and set up their own police force. It means
their tiny 750-acre reservation is now a semi-sovereign nation within
the US, just like much bigger and more famous reservations in the west.

In
order to qualify the Shinnecock literally had to prove that they
existed, submitting thousands of pages of tribal records. It was a
process that has left a bitter legacy. "Why do we need federal
recognition to show we are who we are?" said Shinnecock leader Lance
Gumbs as he sat in his office in the community centre. "It's a
humiliating, degrading and insensitive process. Why do Indian people
have to go through that? No other peoples are treated like that."

Many
believe that the lengthy and painful process that the Shinnecock have
been forced to go through is explained by the tribe's position bang in
the middle of the Hamptons, the string of Long Island towns where rich
New Yorkers come to party away the summers. The difference between
Shinnecock land and the rest of the Hamptons is jarring. The
reservation, signalled by a line of stalls selling cheap cigarettes,
sits side by side with the town of Southampton, heart of the Hamptons
scene.

On the reservation, some roads are dusty and unpaved. The
houses can be ramshackle. Unemployment can be a problem for many
Shinnecock members. Outside it on the streets of Southampton, stretch
limos and black Lexus prowl down streets lined with shops selling Ralph
Lauren and Diane von Furstenberg. A real estate agent on Southampton's
main street happily advertises a local house going for $12.2m.

Historically
– and indeed pretty much since Europeans first arrived in the area in
the 1600s – the Shinnecock have been on the retreat. They lost land
steadily as more and more Europeans began to farm their traditional
territory, eventually leading to an agreement in 1703 that saw them
confined to a broad swath of land around Southampton under a 1,000-year
lease. However, in 1859 the pressure of development saw that deal
scrapped by the settlers and the Shinnecock reduced to their current
tiny holding. For years tribal members then eked out a living working
on white farms or helping local fishermen and whalers.

Now that
is all set to change as a key part of federal recognition allows the
Shinnecock to do the one thing that has changed Native American
fortunes more than anything else in the last 100 years: build a casino.
Gumbs now sees real power finally in Shinnecock hands. "We are going
after everything we are entitled to," he said. "I am not a big fan of
Southampton. They were happy as long as we were the good little Indians
in the corner. Well, that's changed now."

It is unlikely that the
Shinnecock will build their casino in the Hamptons itself, which is
already notoriously crowded and traffic-clogged. Instead the simple
threat of it is likely to eventually see them negotiate the right to
build a casino elsewhere in Long Island, an area that is seen as ripe
for the development of a gambling mecca.

Either way, it seems
Shinnecock fortunes are set to be dramatically reversed. For many
tribal members it is a chance to rescue what remains of the tribe's
culture. Sitting in the tribal museum and cultural centre, Winonah
Warren, 71, remembers being taken as a young girl to see a Shinnecock
medicine man. She sees the deer that she spots in her garden as a
spiritual sign.

She practises a Native American religion in which
she takes peyote. It is about as far from the Hamptons scene as it is
possible to get. "I love being on the reservation. Even when I am not
here, I feel that my heart is," she said, touching her chest.

Some
even feel that federal recognition – and the prospect of a casino –
might be the beginning of a wider Shinnecock resurgence. In the white
land grab of 1859 an area of land called the Shinnecock Hills was
taken. Many Shinnecock held it to be sacred ground. It is now full of
rich houses and the famous Shinnecock Hills golf club, with total real
estate worth more than a billion dollars. The Shinnecock have sued to
get it back.

For many of the Hamptons residents the prospect no
doubt seems ridiculous: a relic of ancient history and long-forgotten
wrongs. But not so for some of the Shinnecock. Elizabeth Haile, a
79-year-old tribal member, remembers her grandmother telling her how
the Shinnecock Hills had been stolen.

Does she think the tribe
will ever get them back? "Yeah," she said with no hesitation, and then
added with a smile: "It is a prediction. Some people never thought we
would get federally recognised."

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