On Indigenous Peoples' Day, Shinnecock members call out centuries of U.S. policy that kept them poor
President Joe Biden is the first U.S. president to recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day. But the celebration is bittersweet for Indigenous communities that are impacted by centuries of American policy and broken promises, according to members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.
While a festive group commemorated the day in New York City, Shinnecock citizens also reflected on recent challenges to their sovereignty and land rights. They said the state of New York and the federal government have threatened economic development on their territory in eastern Long Island, and years of pressure have kept them poor in one of the most expensive regions in the country — the Hamptons.
“We are under constant attack from the state of New York,” said Tela Troge, a Shinnecock member and tribal sovereignty lawyer.
Tela was among the tribal citizens Monday who joined the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, an advocacy group that explores how the government deals with issues of race and poverty, in order to identify injustices against Indigenous communities.
The campaign’s national co-chairs, Reverends Dr. William J. Barber II and Liz Theoharis, said Shinnecock testimony exposes racist systems that perpetuate poverty. Their virtual hearings, alongside the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, have gained thousands of followers during the pandemic, especially after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“The theft of Indigenous land, the attacks on Indigenous culture and language and the physical and spiritual violence visited upon Indigenous communities are not just sins of the past but are ongoing all around us,” said Reverend E. West McNeill, the coalition’s executive director. “The struggles of Indigenous nations for sovereignty and protection of their lands are an important front of struggle in building a movement of the poor and dispossessed.”
First acknowledging the impact of colonialism on their culture, Shinnecock citizens lashed out at more recent efforts by the federal and state governments to stop the tribe’s economic development projects. It was only 11 years ago, in 2010, when the tribe became federally recognized — after a lengthy process to prove their tribal identity through genealogical research. Almost immediately, the tribe was blocked from building a casino in the Hamptons near its territory.
This year, the tribe announced plans to build a casino by partnering with Jack Morris, who helped the Seminole Tribe of Florida establish the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino chain. In addition to an $18 million partnership to build and help manage a medical marijuana facility on tribal territory, the Shinnecock Nation is looking to redefine its economic potential.
“We have to call ourselves owners of the Hamptons, because in this white world, you have to own something or else you're nothing,” Tribal member Rebecca Genia said. “So we own the Hamptons.”
Since 2019, the state has also sued the Shinnecock to remove its two electronic billboards on tribal land along Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays. State transportation officials even threatened to penalize the tribe $1,000 a day for each of the billboards. Courts have ruled in favor of the tribe’s sovereignty and land use.
Jennifer Cuffee-Wilson, a Shinnecock elder, said the issue boils down to an effort to reclaim some of 3,600 acres of land in eastern Long Island that were taken since the first white European settlers arrived in the mid-1630s.
She called this “America’s original sin,” a phrase others also use in reference to slavery.
“Because the United States did not do right by Indigenous people, they have not been doing right by any people of color,” Cuffee-Wilson said. “White people who believe in us: Speak up. That is the only way we are going to see change. That is the only way we are going to do the right thing.”
Reverend Barber of the Poor People's Campaign, who is also a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation genius grant, called for reparations.
“We must say we're here because death happened here, extermination happened here. Then we’ve got to talk about reparations and correction,” Barber said. “Some folks want to just talk about correction. But it must be about reparations — repair and correction.”
After decades of advocacy, the tribe successfully reclaimed a small parcel of land in the wealthy Shinnecock Hills neighborhood. It's known as Sugar Loaf Hill to the tribe, and it's where their ancestors are buried. The land was returned by the Town of Southampton through a deal with the Peconic Land Trust and the tribe.
They also want human remains that were removed from sacred tribal land to be repatriated to the tribe so they can rebury their ancestors.
“Billionaires playing golf on desecrated graves of our ancestors,” Genia said, referring to the construction of Shinnecock Hills Golf Course in the early 1900s. “It's so beyond an insult. It is beyond human comprehension how one human being can treat another human being like this, but we're called ‘poor’ and we're called ‘savages.’"
“You're sitting on hundreds and hundreds of acres of desecrated graves of the Shinnecock people, sipping your cocktails, eating your lobster and teeing off the skulls of our ancestors,” Genia added.
In New York, Governor Kathy Hochul offered a proclamation to mark the state's first Indigenous Peoples' Day — after attending the Columbus Day parade in Manhattan.
"We celebrate New York Indigenous peoples, their sovereignty and their place in history," she said in a statement, which names the Shinnecock. "We recognize the scars left by their unjust treatment and build foundations of trust."
For Genia, celebrating Indigenous Peoples' Day instead of Columbus Day is a step toward exposing centuries of mistreatment.
“It's actually very crazy to live with these billionaires for so long, and still keep your composure, due to the unjust way that our land was stolen from us, and then you're not allowed to talk about it,” she said. “That's not happening anymore.”