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With New Governor, Shinnecock Chairman Seeks Better Relationship With New York

The Shinnecock Graves Protection Society celebrates the completed deal between the town of Southampton and the Peconic Land Trust that allows them to reclaim ancestral burial grounds.
Photo courtesy Tecumseh Ceaser
The Shinnecock Graves Protoection Society celebrates the completed deal between the town of Southampton and the Peconic Land Trust that allows them to reclaim ancestral burial grounds.

From one leader to another, Bryan Polite wishes Kathy Hochul well in her transition to first female governor of New York. As chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, Polite said he looks forward to working with Hochul, who has led economic development in New York for six years under Cuomo as lieutenant governor.

Polite told WSHU’s After All Thingspodcast that he is far from the only tribal leader who will not miss doing business with Cuomo.

Cuomo said he has a record of supporting communities of color. But his relationship with the Shinnecock has been sour since the beginning, Polite said. First as state attorney general and then governor, Cuomo took an aggressive stance against tribal economic development projects.

J.D. Allen, WSHU: How did that challenge sovereignty over their territory?

Bryan Polite: He was going after the New York tribes over our sovereign ability to engage in free and fair tobacco; the tobacco trade that Native Americans are engaged in New York State. He really did a campaign against our sovereign right to engage in that business and really hurt a lot of businesses, both on Shinnecock and in the upstate tribes. So that was our first introduction to Andrew Cuomo in Indian country in New York.

We had issues as tribes, obviously; this one, this was when I was a kid back in the '90s, under his father (Governor Mario Cuomo), so there was always a little contention when it came to the New York State tribes and the Cuomos.

So with that being said, when he got into the governor's office, Shinnecock was hopeful that putting that aside, that we could work together, as we do with the United States government, as we do with the local municipalities. And that's just not how it panned out. And the 12 years that he was in that office, we had no meetings with him, we reached out several times. And he never responded back to us with anything more than setting us to some of his subordinates, which is, you know, standard operation sometimes, but easily followed up with the meeting. And he decided that he was not, you know, I guess important enough to meet with, and we've had a very difficult relationship with the governor's office over the years.

Was it all bad?

I personally penned at least three letters — one of them, I was writing him to express gratitude for his leadership during the pandemic. I, like many other leaders around the country out there, I've done daily briefings and watch and you know, took notes. And he did a really good job.

We've always tried to reach out and be those neighbors that we've been over the last 370 years, and we just didn't get anywhere with that. And it was not only disappointing, it was really saddening, because you have a guy who, you know, in the Democratic circles and throughout the country was revered. And here we are battling someone who's got that kind of clout, and he just dismissed us out of turn. And we're not the only driver in New York who feels that way. He has a very hostile style of dealing with the New York State tribes and sovereign nations.

It sticks with you. There have been threats to the tribe’s economic development projects over the years. The state has disputed fishing rights with Shinnecock baymen and blocked the tribe from building a casino in the Hamptons near its territory.

During protests since 2019 over an ongoing state lawsuit to remove the tribe’s two electronic billboards along Sunrise Highway, the word that the Shinnecock were using was “bully,” you know, that he was bullying the tribe. Do you still feel that way?

Absolutely. No question. You know, I don't want to kick him while he's down. But I think that that needs to be spoken about is that, you know, his treatment of some of his staff obviously, was deplorable. But what goes unspoken, is his treatment of native tribes, which is equally deplorable.

Shinnecock is not the only tribe. I mean, if you ask them, and if you ask us as a whole, that would be the word that I think every single tribe would use is bully, and he did not respect us as an equal. He looked at us as subservient. For somebody who does care about, you know, minority communities. And that goes unquestioned. If you ask me about his policies, it was very disheartening for us to be left out of that mix of minority groups in New York. He just didn't look at us that way. He looked at us, I think, as, not necessarily enemies, but certainly not somebody who he would treat as equals. He looked at us as below the state and kind of a nuisance that the state has to deal with.

Kathy Hochul is the incoming governor. Are you optimistic? She’s been the head of the state’s Regional Economic Development Councils. Does that give you some kind of relief?

Well, first, we want to congratulate the first female Governor of New York. I think that's an accomplishment in and of itself. So if there's any silver lining to this whole unfortunate episode that New York has had to endure, it is definitely the fact that we now have a first woman governor. And that's, you know, long overdue. And so, first, we want to congratulate her on that.

And yes, we are very hopeful. We'll be reaching out to congratulate her, and also to just try to put some of the bad blood between, you know, the executive branch of this government and our government behind us and try to start and we are we are hopeful — cautiously optimistic — that with a new administration comes a new approach. And we have talked to our sister tribes from upstate and they're also hopeful — cautiously optimistic — that we can get a new start with this governor, and we wish her well.

Bryan Polite is the chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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.