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Suffolk Closeup: For Shinnecocks, ‘it was that bad’

When the masterpiece of a documentary, “Conscience Point,” about the Shinnecock people, ended last week, a fellow who had been sitting next to me exclaimed: “I knew it was bad. I didn’t know it was that bad!” Indeed, the documentary brilliantly presents how bad and unfair it’s been for the Shinnecocks.

This film should be seen by everyone in this area. It should be shown in schools here. It will have a national television audience when aired through the U.S. on Monday, Nov. 18, at 10:30 p.m. on the PBS series “Independent Lens.” It received its world premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

As the makers of the “Conscience Point” describe it on their website: “The Hamptons: playground of the super-rich. Epicenter of a luxury property boom, with developers scheming for any scrap of land on which to make millions.”

Meanwhile the original inhabitants of this beautiful peninsula, the Shinnecock Indians, find themselves pushed to a point of near extinction, squeezed onto a tiny 750-acre reservation. Over hundreds of years the Shinnecock have seen their ancient burial grounds plowed up unceremoniously: for the widening of roads, golf courses and new mansions. On the reservation wounds run deep. Exploring the roots of American inequity, greed and pollution, “Conscience Point” contrasts the values of those for whom beautiful places are a commodity—who regard land as raw material to be developed for profit and pleasure—and those locals for whom land means community, belonging, heritage and home.

“Conscience Point” tells the story through the words of Shinnecocks and others, with stunning visuals including the “McMansions” that now surround the Shinnecock Indian Nation, and by capturing events including demonstrations by Shinnecocks—who have been and are facing an extremely uphill struggle.

It is a complete account. For instance, Joe Farrell, the builder of hundreds of McMansions, repeatedly and at length in “Conscience Point” defends his building of the huge buildings, most of them vacation-time places, and announces as he drives past various of his structures what they have sold or are for sale for: $10 million, $25 million, $30 million.

Meanwhile, among the particularly poignant scenes is when Becky Hill-Genia, a Shinnecock heroine of the documentary, goes to the shore of the Shinnecock reservation—once plentiful with seafood that could be harvested—and is only able to gather a few clams. Ms. Hill-Genia is a courageous long-time fighter for the Shinnecocks.

“Conscience Point” gets its name from what the spot where the first Europeans who settled in the Town of Southampton landed in 1640 is called.

Lance Gumbs, a tribal trustee, gives an excellent history of a turning point in the relatively modern history of the Shinnecocks. New York City investors, he explains, sought to build a railroad line through Shinnecock land to develop the South Fork as a place for vacation homes for wealthy New Yorkers. A petition, supposedly from tribal members, was put together. It actually included the names of Shinnecocks who had died—supporting the sale of 3,500 acres of their land through which the line was to go. The New York State Legislature, despite tribal members protesting that the petition was a fraud, approved the sale. The rail line was built. And also built on the land was the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club despite it being the location of traditional tribal burial grounds. The Shinnecocks were left on a reservation on which somewhat over 500 live on today, humbly.

Corey Dolgon, author of “The End of the Hamptons: Scenes from the Class Struggle in American’s Paradise” and formerly a professor in the Friends World Program at Southampton College, is featured and provides a clear analysis of the social context for the Shinnecocks.

“This is such a huge and massive issue. And there’s a lot going on in this world ,but you have to start in your backyard,” said Ms. Hill-Genia in a question-and-answer period after the film was shown at the Southampton Arts Center, about two miles east of the Shinnecock Indian Nation. The Shinnecocks, she said, welcome “like-minded people so we can accomplish something together.”

Mr. Gumbs described the documentary as “phenomenal” in “bringing our culture to the forefront” and presenting “what we’ve been through and what we’re going through.” He said: “We’re forgotten people.” And what is brought forward in the documentary is “not just about the Shinnecocks. All people have an interest. You’re part of it.” Forces “are destroying” Long Island “little by little and soon there won’t be anything left to destroy.”

Treva Wurmfeld, the extraordinarily talented director and co-producer of “Conscience Point,” explained that her goal with the documentary was to “bring more light” on an issue about which “many people coming out here have no clue.”