After European settlers stole their land, the Shinnecock Nation was impoverished. Now they want it back—and the Wall Street bankers gone.
Elder women of the Shinnecock Nation. Photo by Andrew Brannan
The Shinnecock Indians have lived on Long Island's famed East End for thousands of years. Like so many other tribes along the east coast, the Shinnecocks were ravaged by disease brought by European settlers. Today, the Shinnecock Indian Nation consists of less than 1,500 members, about half of whom live on the tribe’s 750-acre reservation on the island’s southeastern shore. The Nation finally earned federal recognition in 2010 after a brutal, decades-long legal battle that one tribal leader described as a “degrading, humiliating, intrusive experience.” Four years later, though, some of the optimism that accompanied that historic moment has dissipated. Economic development remains a serious challenge. It would not be a stretch to describe the Shinnecocks as desperate.
The story of what has happened to this proud tribe over the past century and a half involves some fundamental questions about the American project: Who owns what? What is to be done for those victimized by the system and left with nothing? When do grievances from the past cease to be legitimate? As with so many other native tribes, none of these questions have thus far been resolved in the Shinnecocks’ favor. Their saga serves as a sobering reminder of how those who stand in the way of the capitalist mission—merely by existing—get bulldozed and forgotten.
The Shinnecock Indian Nation’s tribal lands are entirely within the parameters of the Town of Southampton, which happens to be a favored vacation spot for economic elites, including some of the most powerful people in the world. Tycoons like George Soros and David Koch own mansions there, as do a bunch of faceless financiers, those people no one’s ever heard of who somehow become billionaires by doing work no one understands. They are joined by the likes of Howard Stern, Kelly Ripa, and other big shots from the entertainment industry. Truth be told, if you don’t have a place in the Hamptons, you’re really not balling like you should be. It’s a place for obscenely rich white people, and P. Diddy, to just get away from it all, and spend their summers lavishly.
Anyone who has ever walked the streets of Manhattan—or any other major American city—has witnessed the acutely nauseating spectacle of extreme poverty and egregious wealth existing side by side. What makes the contrast between the Shinnecocks’ exceptionally modest existence and the virtually unrivaled affluence that surrounds uniquely jarring, though, is that all that land on which the Masters of the Universe play their precious golf and throw their fabulous parties once belonged to the tribe. Today, this land is considered some of the most valuable real estate in the world, worth billions of dollars. And the Shinnecocks want it back.
To understand how the Shinnecocks lost their land, we need to go back to 1703. That year, English settlers representing the Town of Southampton completed a lease agreement with the Shinnecocks that recognized their ownership of thousands of acres of land on eastern Long Island. This land was to be controlled by the tribe for a period of 1,000 years—in other words, in perpetuity. And for more than 150 years, the Shinnecocks lived on this land, occasionally fighting off raids from other tribes, while engaging in the fishing and whaling for which they were famous.
Then, in April of 1859, white residents decided there was no compelling reason why the natives should get to keep all the land that was legally promised to them. So they concocted a transparently bogus “agreement” in which the Shinnecock leaders inexplicably consented to transfer the “right, title, and interest” to 3,600 acres of pristine land to these white people. Residents brazenly forged tribal leaders’ signatures and presented the document to state legislators, who authorized the transfer in defiance of federal law, which required congressional approval for such things. The economic stakes here were not insignificant, with a railroad included in the development plans business interests had for this land, and that may have been enough incentive for the state to look the other way. In any case, there was very little legal or political risk in strong-arming an Indian tribe back in those days, and the theft was swiftly carried out.
Fast-forward about 150 years. In the summer of 2005, the Shinnecock Indian Nation filed a lawsuit in federal court against, among other parties, New York State and the Town of Southampton. The Nation sought financial compensation and the removal of all current residents from the land so that it may be returned to the tribe.
The Shinnecock Hills Counry Club. Photo by David Hilgart
The lawsuit created an uncomfortable buzz around Long Island; local elites were irked by the tribe’s inexplicable act of insolence. In November of 2006, a US District Court ruled against the Shinnecocks. District Judge Thomas Platt cited the same “pragmatic concerns” that had led the Supreme Court and the Second Circuit to rule against the Oneida and Cayuga tribes in vaguely similar cases in 2005. Platt’s opinion repeatedly refers to “laches,” a seldom-applied legal concept designed to prevent parties from waiting an unreasonably long period of time before asserting a claim to property. Since 1859, the land has been “the subject of occupation and development by non-Indians,” and there has been a “dramatic change in the demographics of the area and the character of the property.” Any sort of land transfer would therefore be prohibitively “disruptive.”
It’s reasonable to wonder why the Shinnecocks did take so long to proceed with a meaningful attempt to reclaim these lands. “The language barrier and lack of familiarity with the US legal system at the time would have made it nearly impossible for the tribe to assert their rights,” said Greg Guedel, chairman of Native American Legal services at the Foster Pepper law firm in Seattle and a researcher at the University of Washington, when I asked him what the holdup was. Indeed, one of the central points the tribe made in the suit is that “institutional barriers prevented the Nation from having a forum to subsequently vindicate its rights.”
The Shinnecocks’ inability to take serious legal action for all those years hardly means that they’re only now realizing the injustice of what happened. It’s not like they were ever cool with having this land stolen. Tribal leaders did not wake up in 2005, look outside, and say to themselves, “Oh, shit. Where did those 3,600 acres go?”
The Nation credibly claims that it has vehemently objected to the theft ever since it occurred. There was just no realistic way for them to do anything about it. Aside from the language barrier, the unfamiliarity with the legal system, and the fact that virtually nobody in power at the local, state, or federal level would have been on their side—the Indian Wars were raging at this time—the Shinnecocks would have been unable to even prove with documentary evidence what had been done. Guedel pointed out that all documentation from the fraudulent land deal would certainly have been created solely “for the purpose of justifying the seizure of the tribe’s lands” and “without any input from the Shinnecock people.” He described it as “theft wrapped in legal paperwork.”
In short, the Shinnecocks had no concrete evidence to prove that this was an institutional crime that changed their entire way of life and dramatically altered their future prospects—and even if they did, the people in a position to do something about it would have given approximately zero fucks. These realities were of little concern to Judge Platt, though, who ruled:
"To be sure, the wrongs about which the Shinnecocks complain are grave, but they are also not of recent vintage, and the disruptive nature of the claims that seek to redress these wrongs tips the equity scale in favor of dismissal."
An appeal of this decision is still pending.
Consider how incredibly surreal all of this must feel to a Shinnecock Indian. They have a massive chunk of their land brazenly stolen by white Europeans. For a century and a half, the downtrodden tribe ekes out a meager livelihood on a small parcel of land—a fraction of what it once had—as some of the wealthiest, most awful people in the world turn what were once sacred grounds into their personal playground. All this time, through all these decades, the tribe is without recourse, having no conceivable way to do anything about what has happened. Finally, with the help of some dedicated and highly skilled lawyers, the tribe brings its case to federal court, to “only seek what is due us,” in the words of one tribal leader—only to be told by an 80-year-old white judge, “Sorry, you really should have come to us sooner, and besides, we can’t ‘disrupt’ the lives of the Wall Street titans who now reside on your ancestral lands.”
People on boats in the Shinnecock Canal. Photo via Flickr user Mr. TinDC
While tribal officials declined comment for this story, I did speak with one tribal member who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of these issues. “It’s a shame that we have to live in damn near poverty,” she told me. What seems to most upset her is not the extreme opulence of those living on sacred tribal grounds or the fact that the Nation “isn’t reaping any of the benefits” of the prime real estate, but rather the general lack of respect afforded to the Shinnecocks at the local level.
She didn’t mean disrespect in some abstract sense, either. It’s disrespect that manifests itself in the daily lives of Shinnecocks. “What pisses me off the most,” she told me, is that “we can’t even go to the beaches here.”
Wait, what? The beaches off of which the Shinnecocks have fished and whaled for thousands of years? “We have to pay $300 for a town permit or pay $40 to park at Cooper’s Beach for one day. I don’t have that kind of money,” she said. The breathtakingly beautiful Cooper’s Beach, which consistently ranks among America’s top ten beaches, is less than 10 minutes from the reservation.
Fed up, she recently decided to take a stand and refused to pay the required $40. “You’re on our land,” she told the beach official. “I’m not going to pay you $40 for nature that you shouldn’t be charging for anyway.” When the official insisted on the $40, she didn’t back down “out of principle.” The Village of Southampton responded by serving her with a $250 ticket.
What has been done to the Shinnecock Indians is pure class warfare, on a colossal scale, and it’s ongoing. Given the sheer relentlessness of the mistreatment they have suffered, and all that has been lost, it’s remarkable the Shinnecocks aren’t even more furious. Indeed, the tribe’s overall equanimity is striking, given everything that has happened. As Randy King, a former tribal leader, put it: “We have been good neighbors to the very people who stole our ancestral land for their own financial gain.” Now, after what King called “hundreds of years of lies, broken promises, and exploitation,” it does not look like the Shinnecocks will ever actually get their ancestral land back.
And this is not the only bad hand the Shinnecocks have been dealt since the jubilance that accompanied federal recognition in 2010. The Nation has struggled with internal political squabbling, and economic development has been stagnant. The casino project into which the tribe pushed a substantial chunk of its limited resources remains mired in legal conflict. When their gaming plans didn’t materialize, the Shinnecocks were “left with nothing,” as the tribal member told me. Along with the perpetual struggle for economic survival, the Nation continues to be saddled with the condescension and outright disrespect of its neighbors, many of whom are ignorant of the history of where they live. (Time studying history could be spent making money.) In fact, according to the Shinnecock I spoke with, not only do many residents not know the history of the area, “some of them don’t even know we exist.”
After having their signatures forged, their land stolen, and their way of life disrespected in myriad, unconscionable ways, how else can the dignity of Shinnecocks possibly be attacked? By being oblivious to their very existence. They’ve become such an insignificant blip on the radar in the Hamptons scene that they might as well not even be there. That’s the final blow.
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