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Shinnecock Nation advocates for voice in wind energy conversations

Andy Dingley
Wikimedia Commons

Offshore wind farms are expected to be built along the East Coast. But members from Shinnecock Indian Nation are working to ensure that Indigenous tribes are included in the conversation.

Lance Gumbs is the tribal ambassador for Shinnecock Nation and the vice president of the National Congress of American Indians for the Northeast. For the past year and a half, Gumbs has been meeting with northeastern tribes to discuss Indigenous wind farm concerns.

After seeing that his concerns were widespread, Gumbs decided to form a coalition of 15 tribes from Maine to Virginia.

Gumbs said they have met with the Bureau of Energy Management (BOEM), the Biden administration’s tribal affairs director, the secretary of energy, and the secretary of the Department of the Interior, all to no fruition.

“We have not been able to have our voices heard and our concerns dealt with in a way that is even remotely acceptable,” Gumbs said.

In February, the National Congress of American Indians called to put a pause on offshore wind projects until tribal territory and sovereignty is safeguarded. Gumbs said the requests for a moratorium have since been ignored.

“To date, there has been no real meaningful resolution,” he said. “There's been no mitigation plans for the tribes. There's been no power purchase agreements with the tribes. There's been no archaeological inclusion.”

Gumbs said tribal people are not opposed to wind farms, but they are opposed to the way the federal government and energy contractors are rolling them out.

Sacred Land Rights

Peter Silva is a Shinnecock elder and tribal chief of the Hassanamisco Nipmuc Nation in Massachusetts. Silva is also a cultural monitoring consultant working with various tribes to protect their sacred Native American sites.

He became involved in wind farms when he heard that the power transmission cables would be coming onto land and potentially disturbing native burial sites. Silva not only works to protect the land above water, but also below.

Silva said coastal Indigenous communities have submerged land rights that should be acknowledged by the federal government. He said they’ve never given up those rights despite them being overlooked.

“Everytime there is some sort of economic advantage that’s seen in our territories, they have historically been taken away," Silva said.

Developers and environmental groups have said wind farms will bring economic benefits, such as jobs and infrastructure. New York State currently has five offshore wind farm projects in development and once completed will supply more than 4,300 megawatts of offshore wind energy.

These projects are expected to have an economic impact of $12.1 billion and power more than 2.4 million New York homes.

Silva is concerned that coastal Indigenous communities will be excluded from these benefits.

“Recognize the fact that these are our ancestral offshore lands and allow us the benefit of economic development and the cultural resources that those lands offer us,” he said. “That will start to make a change. That will start to deal with the history of the United States and how we've treated our coastal tribal people throughout history.”

Community Benefit Agreements

Tela Troge, a Shinnecock tribal attorney, said because of the tribe's government-to-government relationship with the United States they were allowed to see wind farm construction plans and offer comments to energy companies early on.

“Indigenous people have never relinquished any control over the oceans to any entity," she said. “Which is why the United States government has to treat tribes as equal on anything that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management does.”

Lance Gumbs said the tribes are being sent large volumes of information with a 30-day comment period and if they don’t reply in time it is deemed approved.

“We do not have the capacity to afford to get the experts in to analyze all of the data and paperwork you’re sending in,” he said.

Troge said that nobody has funded any tribal nation to do the training and work required to understand these documents and mitigate potential harms.

“It's a very time consuming thing with no financial support,” she said. “And it's really affecting an already disadvantaged community by taking up a lot of resources.”

Earlier this year, Ørsted, the developers of the Sunrise Wind project located off Montauk Point, offered Shinnecock Nation $85,000. Gumbs called the amount a slap in the face.

“That's not even going to hire one consultant, let alone the four to five consultants that we need," he said.

Two months later, the same developers offered the Town of Brookhaven $5 million annually — totaling over $168 million over 25 years.

A community host agreement was then signed that promises Sunrise Wind will invest $700 million in Suffolk County over a 25-year project life. This includes $10 million for a National Offshore Wind Training Center in Brentwood, $5 million for a research and development partnership with Stony Brook University, and hundreds of union construction jobs to build an 18-mile underground transmission cable and facilities.

Troge said that similar agreements have not been made with Shinnecock Nation.

“There has been no offer of discounted electricity, no offer of job training, no offer of the opportunities that have been extended to local towns, counties, and other state entities,” she said.

“We are all related”

Peter Silva also worries that offshore wind farms will harm marine life and affect Indigenous sacred relationships.

Silva explained that each tribal region has a set of dominant animals that they consider the most important to make contact with for well being. For Shinnecock people, they have a deep spiritual connection with the whale. However, this animal is now under threat, and the tribe has found themselves holding more and more burial ceremonies for washed up whales that have been hit by vessels.

Shinnecock also culturally rely on their shellfish and have done so for thousands of years, dating back to the use of wampum, a type of currency native people fashioned out of quahog shells.

Silva said that all animals are considered spiritual relatives of Indigenous people.

“From the smallest organism, plant, rock or piece of sand, all the way up to the greatest animals of the sea such as the whale: We are all related,” he said.

Silva is concerned that undersea construction and wind farms being placed in the migration paths of birds and whales will in the long term be destructive to the ecosystem. He said his role is to speak for his marine relatives that do not have the ability to speak for themselves.

Silva recognized that wind farms are a valuable source of clean energy to meet international climate targets, but warns that there are unique cultural impacts that tribal communities will face as a result.

According to scientific studies, there is much still unknown about how wind farms will impact wildlife and the environment. Silva said more time is needed to understand how these projects will adversely impact migration tracts before construction proceeds.

He has attempted to slow the projects down so that the appropriate studies can be conducted, but said his strategy has failed and his warnings left unheard.

Silva said there have been no major attempts to protect already dying marine life and all that is left now is mitigation.

“If there's going to be a further attack on our waterways, then indeed, the tribal people are saying, ‘We can't stop you. You know what you're doing. You know what the destruction is going to be,” Silva said. “And you have elected in the national interest to do so, then the only thing that's left of us is to look at mitigation.”

Silva has proposed a number of mitigation efforts that center Indigenous knowledge. But he said due to historic marginalization, native people lack the resources and funding.

“Provide the funding and technical experts, and the contracting necessary for us to continue our activities in the attempt to bring life,” Silva said. “Help us save our coastlines and our environment for our children. That's what that mitigation is all about.”

According to Silva, the BOEM's Office of Environmental Justice has listened to his mitigation concerns and opened an official inquiry, but he worries time is running out and major Indigenous concerns still not addressed.

Gumbs and 13 other tribal leaders recently met with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous cabinet member, but he was disappointed by her lack of actionable steps.

“We've been talking ‘til we're blue in the face, and nobody's listening to us,” Gumbs said. “So we're going to move on to the next measure that the tribes can do to have our voices heard.”

Gumbs said that right now the coalition of tribes is looking into filing a court claim.

Maria Lynders is a news fellow at WSHU, working to cover Indigenous communities in southern New England and Long Island, New York.