The Origin of This Fire

At the W.A.V.E. fire on the Shinnecock reservation.
At the W.A.V.E. fire on the Shinnecock reservation.

by Kara Westerman

W.A.V.E., Women Against Violence Everyday, was started five and a half years ago by Shinnecock tribal member Rebecca Genia to draw attention to the violence that has been denied, ignored, and underreported in her community, but also to do something tangible to change the internal and external landscape of violence against indigenous women everywhere.

It began in response to a violent incident in her own life on the reservation almost six years ago. A group of people were threatening to harm her grandson. She had to hide him, and they basically became prisoners in her home. Ms. Genia told me she was scared to death.

“I was on my own,” she said. “There is no tribal police on the reservation, and the State Police don’t come onto our land unless a crime has already been committed, so I was basically on my own to prevent this from happening. It was one of the worst times I’ve ever been through.”

It was such an extreme situation, and there seemed no way out until she decided to something different. “

I prayed. I prayed hard, and the ancestors told me what to do,” she said.

If you drive drive into the Shinnecock Reservation at the Shinnecock Museum, and take West Gate Road all the way to end, at the corner of Church and Little Church you will come upon the ancestors’ answer: The W.A.V.E. prayer fire, a raised metal fire pit with whole logs burning, surrounded by tree-stump stools and benches made of split logs and covered with colorful cloth.

“The ancestors told me to come to this corner and start a prayer fire, “ Genia says. “So, I listened to them and I did.”

Over the past five-and-a-half years, Genia told me, “hundreds of people have come and visited and talked with us and shared their stories, from the tribe and outside of the tribe. I started this prayer fire in order for people to have a place to come to that is safe and sacred. Anyone can come here and offer their prayers. We don’t have to be here.”

The fire had been going for some time when I arrived, late for our scheduled interview because of summer traffic, to find Rebecca Genia and her cousins Lewis and Jennifer sitting around the circle, amidst the shifting and billowing smoke.

Ms. Genia’s two sisters, Holly Haile Davis, Tina Tarrant, and Ben Haile,  all grandchildren of Chief and Mrs. Thunderbird, and all members the long-time musical group The Thunderbird Sisters, gathered in the circle as we spoke.

They were set to rehearse around the fire, and I was excited at the prospect of recording their music, but they preferred to stay out of the way of my camera and microphone.

Becky Genia seems to be the sister most comfortable talking with the public.

The location of the fire is perfectly sited to be central to the community, across the street from the church, and a stone’s throw from the community center. But it also seems a perfect place to put a fire to restore the balance of centuries of European colonization, by offering an alternative to Church prayer.

Ms. Genia agrees.

“We can barely remember what our traditions were. In June 1640, boats arrived at Conscience Point with rum and disease, and these visitors shook our hands and our society began to decline,” she said. “The fire brings us back to the original way that we prayed for thousands of years.”

A red dress, faded to purple by the sun, signifying the suffering of women.
A red dress, faded to purple by the sun, signifying the suffering of women.

Just behind the prayer fire circle is a hanging red dress, faded now into a purple because of exposure to the elements.

Ms. Genia explains that it is a visual symbol for “remembering the murdered and missing indigenous women and girls,” a massive concern worldwide, in Canada, North America, South America, Central America, and includes human trafficking, which is often the result when women and girls leave abusive situations at home.

“When people see a red dress it raises awareness of the domestic violence issue,” she says. “The more people that think about the domestic violence issue and do something about it, the better off we will be. Domestic violence is not just in our community but all over our country and the world. ‘Silence is compliance’, as they say, and we can’t keep quiet anymore. It’s time to stand up and say something, and help anyone who is in need.”

Ms. Genia told me she believes that violence usually begins in the home, and makes it harder to function in the world, harder to cope with realities, especially if you have nowhere to go.

“And that’s what brings us here today,” Ms. Genia said. “That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

W.A.V.E.’s latest ambitious project is the creation of a community safe house, using an existing building in need of renovation on the reservation. Becky tells me it already has a septic system, telephone poles and water hook-up, but it needs a roof and windows, and rehab inside.

This will be a physical space where anyone who feels unsafe can go.

“In our community, we have heard so many stories about domestic violence. People need someplace to go until 911 is called, or a family member can get there,” says Ms. Genia. “Many people in the past have opened their own homes as safe houses, but we want to do this officially.”

She has already lined up a staff of seven volunteers willing to run the house for the first year.

“The matron who will be running the safe house is 24 years clean and serene, and she takes no garbage from anybody. You can’t pull the wool over her eyes for nothing! she says.

The Shinnecocks hold their lands in common, which makes it impossible to get bank loans to do the renovation.

”Oh, heck no! We are pooling all our resources here, and writing a business plan to make this happen. We’ve wanted to do this for a long time and we trusted that someone else was going to do something,” Ms. Genia said. “But it just doesn’t happen, so we’re stepping up, and we’re going to make it happen.”

Besides housing women and children escaping domestic violence, the safe house will also be a place where addicts seeking help from addiction can wait in a safety zone until a bed at a treatment facility becomes available.

“People are struggling to get clean and sober, but if they can’t get a bed date for a week in a rehab, and have nowhere to go, they end up going right back into the streets,” she says.

Ms. Genia hopes the physical safe space will have a huge impact on the community’s well being, creating a safe space in the mind, a pause in the drama, a small opening inside a disaster, a time-out zone crucial in moments of extreme duress. Just knowing there is an alternative place to go may make the difference between life and death, offering alternatives to bad decisions made when people are under stress.

“It allows you to think clearly for a couple of minutes,” Ms. Genia says. “ ‘I do have someplace to go. I do have somebody who cares.’ “

W.A.V.E. is working closely with a well established non-profit, The Padoquohan Medicine Lodge, and is in the initial stage of creating the package to will be sent out with their proposal to fundraise the $150,000 needed to renovate the house.

The main change Ms. Genia has seen in her community in the past five and half years since she started the fire is a ‘wave of empowerment,’ she says proudly.

“We’ve planted a seed, and it’s growing. I can see that people are getting stronger, and it’s a strengthening from within,” she says. “We don’t have to back down to bullies anymore. We are strong enough to stand up and say something.”

W.A.V.E. welcomes volunteers and assistance from the community to help make the safe house a reality. You can contact them through The Padoquohan Medicine Lodge, which is a 501 c3 non-profit organization,  at P.O. Box 5078, Southampton, NY, 11969.

Kara Westerman

Kara Westerman is a fiction author, teacher, oral history facilitator and writing workshop leader. She received her fiction MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and produces and hosts the podcast Phantom Hampton: Stories From Where The Rest of Us Live.

East End Beacon

The East End Beacon is your guide to social and environmental issues, arts & culture on the East End of Long Island.

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