Pictured above: A change.org petition supporting Shinnecock grave protection has garnered nearly 13,000 signatures.
After decades of advocacy on the part of the Shinnecock Nation, Southampton Town Board unanimously passed two measures designed to protect the tribe’s ancestral burial sites on Tuesday, including an act requiring construction be immediately stopped if human remains are found anywhere in town, and a six-month moratorium on development in several areas the Shinnecock Nation has historically used as burial sites.
Early versions of the proposals had been prepared for public hearings as the pandemic shut down government meetings and much of industry this spring. The public hearings were finally resumed late this summer, at which members of the Shinnecock Nation urged the board to act quickly in adopting the laws.
The movement has gained national attention, along with a change.org petition by tribal member Chenae Bullock that has garnered nearly 13,000 signatures.
The first proposed law, called “Protection of Unmarked Graves,” adds a section to the town code making it a misdemeanor to remove human remains or funerary objects from an unmarked burial site, or to deface or destroy the burial site and artifacts, punishable of fines of no less than $10,000 or imprisonment of up to 15 days.
The moratorium includes the two areas of Shinnecock Hills known as Fort Hill and Sugarloaf, which were designated by New York State as recognized Shinnecock burial grounds, along with the vicinity of Hawthorne Road, where the discovery of human remains in 2018 rekindled the grave protection effort.
“It’s near fresh water and undulating hills, very similar to the Sugarloaf area,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman before approving the resolutions. “It would make sense to expand the rules for the Sugarloaf area into this area.”
The Fort Hill area, which was the primary settlement of the Shinnecock Nation at the time English colonists arrived in 1640, is the area north of Montauk Highway, bounded on the north by the Long Island Rail Road line, on the west by Peconic Road and on the east by Ridge Road.
The Sugarloaf area, which now includes Hawthorne Road, is directly south of the Fort Hill area between Montauk Highway and Shinnecock Bay.
Further development on any vacant or developed land in the Sugarloaf area would be prohibited during the moratorium, while development on vacant land would be prohibited in the Fort Hill area.
Jennifer E. Cuffee-Wilson, who, with other members of the Shinnecock Graves Protection Warrior Society have been protesting outside town hall in recent weeks, said the fight for graves protection has been going on for decades. She and many others expressed their weariness with the process during a public comment period before the vote.
“We have been dealing with this for close to 30 years. This is nothing new,” said Ms. Cuffee-Wilson. “This is the fourth supervisor and the fourth board that we have dealt with. We have been dealing with such disrespect since 1640. We have been good neighbors. We taught your ancestors how to survive, how to live. We gave you land. You stole it from us, lied to us. You dug up our ancestors, put them in museums or threw them away. This wasn’t something that just happened and it needs to stop.”
New York State is one of just four states in the U.S. that does not have a law on the books protecting Native gravesites.
Mr. Schneiderman said that, when the grave site was found on Hawthorne Road, he went to the building department looking to have a stop work order issued and was shocked to learn the discovery of a human gravesite was not legal grounds for a stop work order.
“Luckily, we had a developer who would work with the town,” he said. “We were able to successfully negotiate and acquire the property.”
The property was acquired using Community Preservation Fund money, and Mr. Schneiderman said the town will “continue to have an aggressive CPF program targeting parcels in this area.”
He added that the moratorium will give the town time to draft legislation requiring archeological reports be done before building permits are issued in the Fort Hill and Sugarloaf areas.
Shinnecock Nation Chairman Bryan Polite said the graves protection act, the “first of its kind in New York State,” will hopefully serve as a template for the state to adopt.
Since 1640, when Southampton Town was founded, Mr. Polite said the Shinnecock Nation’s relationship with the town has been “fraught with all kinds of upheaval.”
“Today, with this bill passing, we’re turning a new chapter,” he added. “I want to recognize the hard work of the Graves Protection Warrior Society, and everybody who stood hand in hand over the past 40 years trying to get this passed. I know it hasn’t been easy. The system has let Shinnecock down over the years…. I want to congratulate this board for finally getting it over the finish line.”
“We can’t erase 400 years of history. What we can do is move forward with positive steps to respect the people who were here first,” said Mr. Schneiderman. “We can certainly do a better job than some of our ancestors have done.”