Suffolk Closeup: Shinnecocks fight to save burial site

Indigenous people the world over have been — and still are — victims of persecution.

Flying to South Dakota several years ago to meet American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from people in the seats behind me on the plane: Nasty talk about Indians. On the ground in Rapid City, it was clear that far more than words were involved. The U.S. government “is still at war” with Native Americans, said Mr. Means. My visit included traveling around the Black Hills, stolen, he said, from the Lakota people. 

On the other side of the world, in Australia, where I went to give a presentation, I found the treatment of its Aboriginal people comparably terrible. It began with Captain James Cook landing in Australia in 1770 and in the name of Great Britain declaring the continent terra nullius (nobody’s land), although Aboriginal people had lived there for more than 65,000 years.

A UN report, “The State of the World’s Indigenous People,” details the situation in South America, the Pacific, Africa, and on and on, including in the U.S. “The situation of indigenous peoples in many parts of the world continues to be critical: indigenous peoples face systemic discrimination,” it states. “Indigenous peoples are dispossessed of their ancestral lands and deprived of their resources for survival, both physical and cultural; they are even robbed of their very right to life.”

In recent times, they’ve been subject to new forms of victimization. I wrote an article a while back on environmental racism that included how Sequoyah Fuel Corporation set up a facility to produce nuclear plant fuel in a Native American area of Oklahoma. A result: many “unusual cancers,” said Lance Hughes, director of Native Americans for a Clean Environment. “It’s pretty sad — babies born without eyes, with brain cancers … The name of the game has been changed, but I would call it the same — genocide.”

Suffolk County was established in 1683. For thousands of years before, indigenous people lived here. The land-grabbing from them was relatively easy as Native Americans haven’t considered land a commodity. “We Are The Land: Native American Views of Nature,” a chapter in “Nature Across Culture,” speaks of Native Americans regarding land as “a part of our being, dynamic, significant … It is our self.”

The situation involving the Shinnecock people, where once a large part of the East End was their home, reflects the victimization here of indigenous people, as shown in the brilliant video documentary, “Conscience Point,” aired in the U.S. last year on PBS. (There will be a free showing of it at 5 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Southampton Arts Center along with a panel discussion.) 

In the documentary, Lance Gumbs, a Shinnecock Nation trustee, tells of a turning point in the tribe’s history. In 1859, New York City investors sought to build a railroad line through 3,500 acres of Shinnecock land to develop the South Fork as a place for wealthy New Yorkers. A phony petition that featured the names of dead Shinnecocks was submitted in support. The New York State Legislature, despite tribal members protesting the petition as a fraud, approved the rail line. The Shinnecock land was “stolen,” says Mr. Gumbs. Also built on the land was the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, despite it being the site of Shinnecock burial grounds. The Shinnecocks were consigned to a 750-acre territory on which somewhat over 500 live today, humbly. 

The burial ground issue has long been intense because the Shinnecocks, like other Native Americans, especially revere the memory of their ancestors. 

It’s again front-and-center because of a push underway by a builder to develop land on several acres in Southampton in which Shinnecocks are believed buried. There have been significant protests. And at a hearing before the Southampton Town Board last month, Thomas Oleszczuk of Noyac, a former university political science professor, said: “I wouldn’t want a cemetery where my grandparents are buried to be destroyed, much less intentionally destroyed.” 

Earlier in the day, he noted, he was at a demonstration with “a sign I made that read ‘Defend the sacred.’”

Tela Troge, a Shinnecock and attorney for the Nation, told me last week: “It’s horrible. It’s an extension of Shinnecock Hills being stolen from us in 1859.” 

The Shinnecock Nation was not informed of this new construction. And Ms. Troge added, “We can’t go to court and sue. The Shinnecock Nation is not allowed to sue the Town of Southampton or the State of New York.” 

There’s an effort by the town, she noted, to preserve three of the lots through its Community Preservation Fund. But the builder has “no intention” of having the lot on which he is now working saved. She said that New York State is one of only four states in the U.S. that doesn’t protect Native American burial sites, and that there’s a bill in the state legislature that would change this. 

That’s if, of course, it passes.