Answers for the Ancestors
New Sylvester Manor Partnership Pairs Archaeologists with Native Peoples
Pictured Above: A ball jar filled with roses at a Sept. 24 ceremony to honor the Afro-Indigenous people buried at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island.
Since the last glacier retreated, creating Long Island 11,000 years ago, native people who made Eastern Long Island their home began burying their deceased relatives on hills overlooking the water, in spots that today would seem like ‘prime real estate’ from a Eurocentric point of view.
Over at Sylvester Manor in Shelter Island, such a burial hill sits at the entrance to Sylvester Manor, once the lands of the indigenous Manhansett people, which since 1651 had been a plantation that is now the most intact slaveholding plantation remnant north of Virginia. The 235-acre site is now a farming and education center.
This fall, on the heels of their success preserving the Shinnecock Nation’s ancestral burial grounds at the summit of Sugar Loaf Hill, the Shinnecock Tribal Nation Graves Protection Warrior Society is partnering with Sylvester Manor, Honor Our Indigenous Ancestors, Inc., the Unkechaug Nation and archaeologists from UMass-Boston to learn more about the Shelter Island hill, which for years has been undisturbed, with just a worn stone marker, erected in the late 1800s, at its base stating that this was the “Burial Ground of the Colored People of Sylvester Manor since 1651.”
On Sept. 24, participants in the archaeological study gathered at the hill for a ceremonial beginning to the work, and a promise to begin with a clean slate.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be here today and to do this work for our ancestors and for our future generations,” said Shane Weeks, Co-Chair of the Shinnecock Graves Protection Warrior Society, who sang a blessing for the project.
“People don’t know where our burials are, due to institutionalized colonialization. It’s systematic that this is not common knowledge,” he added. “Our history isn’t something that I learned in school. It’s not something local school districts teach.”
“The 1970s is when it became legal for our people to stand here and speak on our own behalf. This was illegal in the United States until 1974,” he added. “We couldn’t practice our culture freely. My generation, we are the first generation to be able to be born into a world where we can openly and freely be who we are as indigenous people.”
Mr. Weeks added that the Manhansett people of Shelter Island, who were likely buried on the hill, are considered to be family by the Shinnecock people.
“In our way, we didn’t have lines in our lands and in our people as they are drawn today,” he said. “All those people were related, all brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles, all across Long Island. Metaoc is the name of our people on Long Island collectively. It means meta oci – place of the heart, land of the heart. That’s who we were in this part of the world. It wasn’t until colonization that we were segregated on paper, to make it easier (for colonists) to buy land. That’s how our people began to be separated, but we’re all one people who are buried on this land.”
“Our mission is not to harm their spirits,” he added. “If somebody can’t respect our deceased, how do we respect ourselves as living people? We’ll be there one day. We hope that future generations don’t have to go through the same things they’ve gone through. That’s part of that work that we’re all doing here today.”
The leadership at the Manor, now a non-profit educational organization, had long left the hill in its natural state, before learning from Shinnecock people that the proper thing to do would be to keep the land clear of leaves and debris, said the Manor’s Curator and Archivist, Donnamarie Barnes.
The Manor’s groundskeeper, Gunnar Wissemann, has begun clearing the hill by hand, uncovering amongst the pine duff and oak leaves a pattern of stones, grave markers worn smooth by the centuries. He’s surrounded the area with wooden benches for people to sit and contemplate the history here.
“I come to the burial grounds often. It’s a sacred space. It’s a space that calls to us in different ways,” said Ms. Barnes at the ceremony. “We don’t know a lot about it. Of the thousands of pieces of paper in the documentation of the Manor, the documents that are missing are the documents that talk about this space, who was buried here, when they died and the circumstances. It’s peculiar.”
Ms. Barnes called out the names of the 11 people she knew were buried on the hill, though judging from just the stones visible now, there are far many more who remain unaccounted for. The earliest just had first names, like Hannah, Violet, London and Dido, or Black John. David Hempstead Sr. is buried here, as is Isaac Pharaoh, who has a Montaukett surname. The last person to be buried here, she said, her voice choked with emotion, was Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, a freeborn woman of color buried here in 1908.
“We honor you. We respect you. We celebrate you and we gain strength from you to move into the future together,” said Ms. Barnes.
The work here will be conducted under the direction of Dr. Stephen Mrozowski, a UMass Boston archeologist, along with John Steinberg, an expert in the use of ground-penetrating radar. Dr. Mrozowski has lead archaeological studies at the Manor for the past 20 years.
The initial archaeological surveying, to be conducted now through early October, will determine if the burial site is larger than currently described, map the area, and perform advanced ground penetrating radar, in an effort to determine how many graves are present.
It’s the first phase of a three-year archaeological study at Sylvester Manor, in collaboration with UMass Boston and representatives of the tribes of Long Island. The study will be partially funded by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Hart Family Fund for Small Towns and a federal grant from the 400 Years of African American History Commission.
“The great Nez Perce Chief Joseph said it doesn’t take many words to speak the truth, and here’s an undeniable truth,” said Dr. Mrozowski at the ceremony. “Change only comes from change. You can’t change by doing things the way you’ve done them in the past. For 150 years, archaeologists did archeology without ever talking to the very people whose history they purported to be interested in, to love, and to want to learn through. They treated them with no respect. Those days have got to end and this is the kind of project that will change them. I feel very fortunate to be here today to start this project and do it collaboratively with the Shinnecock people. It is the way it should have always been, but it was not. I’m sorry for that, but today is the beginning of the future, and from now on this is the way the work will be done, or it won’t be done at all.”
Ms. Barnes invited the public to continue to engage with this project, and to spend time at the burial ground.
“This is sacred ground. You see it in the way the trees shelter it, and in the smell of the pines. It feels special, natural and full of mystery,” she said. “This project is to start to understand a little of this mystery and what this space really means. Please come back whenever you need to find peace and tranquility.”