Shinnecock people fight for land in playground of 1%

In January 2020, members of the Shinnecock nation protested outside a construction site on Montauk Highway in Southampton, N.Y.

Before Europeans arrived, the Shinnecock people occupied a 146-mile ancestral territory, which included oceanfront, bays, sounds, marshes, creeks, salt meadows, forests and grasslands, in what is now called Long Island, N.Y. 

The Shinnecock world began to change in 1640, when village leaders permitted English colonists to share a portion of their lands in exchange for 60 cloth coats, 60 bushels of corn and the promise of military protection. 

The English considered the agreement a land sale, memorializing it in a “deed” that transferred to themselves a swath of Indigenous territory upon which they established Southampton. 

The land appropriation continued in 1703, when the nation relinquished territory to Southampton in return for a 1,000-year lease of 3,500 acres. This included the Shinnecock Hills, now home of the ultra-exclusive Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. 

And in 1859, the New York legislature approved a shady deal that abrogated the 1703 lease, returned the Shinnecock Hills to Southampton and restored the peninsula known as  Shinnecock Neck to the tribe. The transaction, long considered fraudulent by the Shinnecock, reduced the tribe’s land base to its present size — approximately 800 acres for 1,200 enrolled members.

Increasingly bereft of land, Shinnecock tribal members were forced to find employment in the colonial economy. Women became domestic servants in non-Native households, and men worked as farm laborers and as whalers who harvested their quarry close to shore. (Shinnecock means “people of the shore.”)

Later, the tribe had to fight to stop pollution and pesticides from killing off their main source of food, the sealife at their shorelines and all bodies of water. The settlers sprayed to kill mosquitos. But the fish ate the mosquitos — no mosquitos, no fish, Natives starve. 

The pollution got so bad that in 2012, hundreds of dead crabs washed ashore on Shinnecock land.

The Hamptons has become a playground for the 1%. Meanwhile 60%-70% of Shinnecock people live below the poverty level.  Many celebrities live on Shinnecock land, including Anderson Cooper, Robert De Niro, Christie Brinkley, Alec Baldwin, Neil Patrick Harris, Beyonce and Jay Z, to name a few. 

Traditionally, the Shinnecock were a fishing community and caught scallops and clams. Heddy Creek was closed to them and they had to fight for fishing rights that were actually theirs by birthright. Now the fish that do swim the waters are undersized and the scallops and clams are hard to find as their numbers have dwindled.

The Shinnecock’s most recent struggle is an issue concerning the ancestors. The 1% continue to build on Shinnecock land. As they dig up ground for their swimming pools, they are unearthing entire skeletons. The wealthy see it as a land issue, while the Shinnecock see digging up ancestors as the worst thing a person can do.  

Lawsuits are ongoing. The bottom line is that the Shinnecock deserve their land back.

The Shinnecock made a wonderful documentary titled “Conscience Point,” a moving look at their lives on the peninsula, by Treva Wurmfeld (producer, writer, director and editor), Julianna Brannum (a Comanche producer and documentary filmmaker) and Alli Hunter Joseph (a Shinnecock journalist and producer). This project is proof that women know how to make movies.

The struggle of the Shinnecock continues, fighting for the return of their ancestral land. 

Zola Fish is a member of the Choctaw Nation.