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Hamptons Land Deal With Shinnecock Tribe Would Preserve Sacred Burial Site

Danny Hopkins/Long Island Progressive Coalition

Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation rallied outside Southampton Town Hall in eastern Long Island on Tuesday night to urge the town to approve a deal to preserve sacred tribal land. The town is now poised to make a decision in June.

The Shinnecock people have sought for decades to protect an area in the Shinnecock Hills neighborhood of the Hamptons. It's known as "Sugar Loaf Hill" to the tribe, an ancient burial ground for their people.

“In growing up, we were taught that that place is a sacred place. All of the Shinnecock Hills are and that is especially sacred," said Denise Silva-Dennis, a retired Shinnecock teacher. “It is the heart of our reservation. That is where our people are buried.”

Her daughter, tribal trustee Kelly Dennis, said the land preservation means their ancestors can be at peace.

“We are at this moment where there is no turning back, and we have the support needed to go forward with protecting the site,” she said. “And taking down a mansion, how significant is that?”

Under the agreement, the town would use its Community Preservation Fund, which is generated by a 2% tax on real estate transactions in the five easternmost towns on Long Island, to purchase a conservation easement to preserve the property. The Peconic Land Trust would then acquire the fee title for the land from the town for preservation and raze some development back to nature. The tribe said the group would protect the land until it is returned to their stewardship.

The town has in recent years worked with the tribe to pause new development in wealthy Hamptons neighborhoods where ancient human remains and artifacts of Indigienous people have been found on construction sites.

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said the town has a responsibility to make sure that the community has the ability to weigh in on this during the pandemic, and will keep the public comment period open for two weeks.

“But it’s an extraordinary place,” he said, referring to the property. “It is hard not to feel like it’s spiritual or mystical there.”

The town is situated on land once entirely home to Shinnecock people and other tribes, including the Montaukett and Unkechaug tribes. Around 1,000 people live on the Shinnecock territory nearby.

The town has also reviewed its laws and land use related to unmarked graves and burial sites. They hope to develop procedures for how to survey for and preserve remains and artifacts discovered in historically sensitive areas. New York is one of four states that lacks such a law.

“I think this is a historic moment,” Schneiderman said.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.