by Jo-Ann McLean

Knowing full well that, during the construction of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, intact Native American burial mounds had been converted to obstacles in front of some greens, while others had been converted into bunkers, I was nevertheless unmoved in 2000 by groups of picketing Native Americans claiming that the Parrish Pond development property, across the highway, south of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club was sacred ground.  I clearly did not understand the message.

An archaeological survey declared the property generally non-sensitive for pre-contact materials. The term ‘sacred” under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) is equated to the rarest of finds, human burials, the only find that can stop construction. 

For archaeologists conducting cultural resource management on lands slated for development in New York State, archaeological sensitivity resides in the physical presence of material culture…the concept of the sacred, in any form other than burials, had not yet made it into the mix. Thus, the land was given the go ahead for development.

That was nearly twenty years ago and little has changed out here since. European Americans are still land grabbing and the dominant European American culture is still dictating Shinnecock access to their traditional lands in one of the most highly segregated communities in the U.S.

In general the Indians remain poor and reservation constrained, where cancer, poverty and alcoholism have replaced small pox as a way of extermination. Even with federal recognition, the balance of power has not changed.

This has recently been demonstrated, once again, on Hawthorne Street, a wooded lot in an established neighborhood in the Shinnecock Hills. Many years ago, an adjacent property was designated “sensitive for archaeological remains” and nine of its acres were preserved, with the balance developed. And yet, the developer of the one-third acre on Hawthorne was not required to perform a Cultural Resources Survey under SEQR before excavation began.   

On August 13, human remains there were dismembered by a backhoe.

An associated artifact, an early 18th Century glass bottle, is clearly reminiscent of the early 18th Century burials at the famous Pantigo Site in East Hampton. Such sites are of enormous interest to archaeologists, who work to understand the life ways of Native groups on the East End of Long Island hundreds and thousands of years ago, but more importantly, they are sacrosanct to the Shinnecock Nation, a federally recognized tribe.

For the Shinnecock, the Hills that carry their name are hallowed ground. They simply want them protected, or at very best preserved.

At the heart of the Shinnecock struggle for sovereignty, self-determination, identity and religious freedom is a misunderstanding by the dominant culture of native belief systems and spirituality, which stems from the dominant society’s dismissal of the indigenous knowledge base and a lingering conviction in the inequality of races.

So while misconceptions about the significance of sacred sites such as the Shinnecock Hills suffice as the apparent reason that justice eludes Native Indians on Long Island, the more salient reason, even though the archaeology demonstrates a  clear and ancient connection to the land and its sacred components, is a deep disrespect for Native Indian culture as it is practiced here, and a palpable undercurrent of dominance, racism and distrust attached to the fact that the legitimacy of Native land claims may divest the wealthy of their holdings.

John Strong, Ph.D., the respected Long Island historian and author, has elsewhere delineated the negative stereotypes used to justify alienation of Native Americans on Long Island. The arguement that the tribe lacked racial purity was contrived by colonists as a category to divest the Shinnecock of their identity.  Therefore, marginalization was accomplished not simply based on eradication of the Shinnecock traditional life ways and lands. It was achieved by racial stereotyping about mixed blood categories.   

It seems that Native Americans simply couldn’t do anything right while maintaining their indigenous world view. Their cultural and spiritual ways were regarded as primitive, intermarriage with other ‘races’ denigrated Europeans’ conception of their ‘Indianness,’ and the tribe’s attempts at accommodation to colonists’ demands heralded a death knell to their traditional way of life.  Any excuse at all was seized, devised and invented to deny them their birthright.

Western categories such as racial stereotyping persists on Long Island, but the Shinnecock are reaffirming their traditional living culture to honor their ancestors and to fortify their traditions. They are again defining themselves in Indian terms, where blood quantum is not an issue.

Considerations of legitimacy should be behind them. They have gained Federal recognition, yet locally they remain powerless to protect the graves of their ancestors, which dot the Shinnecock Hills, and are being destroyed by construction or lie undisturbed in so many Southampton backyards.

The time has come for an Unmarked Burial Protection Policy in the Town of Southampton.  The time has come for the neighbors of the Shinnecock Nation to acknowledge the deference this ancient culture would garner were they not dispossessed of their land, were they still harvesting local resources and were they still, as custom dictated, ceremoniously burying their dead in the sacred Shinnecock Hills.

Members of the Shinnecock Nation are raising $50,000 to rebury the remains unearthed this summer and preserve the site where they were found, online here.

Jo-Ann McLean is a Professional Archaeologist conducting Cultural Research Management on the East End for 30 years, and a Freelance Writer for The East End Beacon.

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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