In October 2003, Shelter Island homeowners Walter and Susanne Richards uncovered a burial site containing at least 10 skeletons while excavating for a barn that was going to be built near their house on Osprey Road. Forensic anthropologists determined that the bodies, likely Native American remains, had been buried sometime between 1410 and 1640.
Construction was later continued on top of the ancient gravesite.
Nearly a decade later, discoveries like the one on Shelter Island continue to prove unsettling and disheartening to Shinnecock Indian tribe members and others concerned about the treatment of numerous Shinnecock Indian remains—as well as those from other American Indian tribes—that have been discovered in recent years as a result of increased excavation and construction on the East End. For quite some time, however, Southampton Town has been idle in coming to a solution as to what to do when ancient Native American burial remains are unearthed.
“These are our ancestors, these are their remains…and they need to be preserved,” says Beverly Jensen, Director of Communications for the Shinnecock Indian Tribe. “Old gravesites are sacred to us. This is where these spirits were laid to rest. These lands should be treated with the sanctity of a cemetery.”
A current set of proposed laws, if enacted, would halt excavation activity if human remains or artifacts are found that would indicate an area was once an ancient burial site, even if found on private property. Lawmakers who oppose the approval of such laws, however, contend that they would create a substantial legal liability for the town.
Last October, town attorneys advised that a long-pending proposed town law that would place restrictions on a property if remains or other indicators of a burial ground were discovered be stricken from consideration. Attorneys foresee numerous future violations stemming from taking or limiting property rights on private property. As a precaution, Councilwoman Bridget Fleming has suggested the town move forward with developing a clear set of procedures instructing and directing property owners on how they should handle the discovery of remains to ensure their protection, regardless of whether there are legal mandates regarding the unearthing.
Shinnecock tribe members have noted that even if laws protecting sacred sites from disturbance by nearby development projects were on the books, most discoveries would not be of a level that would prohibit development from continuing. But that would not make them any less important.
Rubin Valdez, a Shinnecock Indian, recalls how unsettling it was when he was called to Water Mill after a skull—believed to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old—was found on a parcel of land a few miles from the tribe’s reservation. The area in Water Mill south of Montauk Highway had traditionally been a tribal summer village, during a time when the tribe was more itinerant, following the food supply and living closer to the water each summer, informs Valdez, who encouraged the town to buy the waterfront land where the skull was found to preserve it and its sacredness.
“We were able to look into the face of this young man pulled out of the ground after 3,000 years,” he says. “Now we have the opportunity to restore this young man back to his original gravesite.”
Tribal members, Jensen says, are currently talking with Southampton Town officials about mapping out likely burial grounds and other sacred sites to avoid instances like those in Water Mill and Shelter Island. The mapping process is being compiled based on knowledge of sites from Shinnecock members and locations the town has already identified, and must be completed before any further legislative measures can be taken, the Southampton Town Board said.
However, tribe members want action taken sooner than later.
“The developers are raping this land,” observed Valdez. “We just want some form of effort here to protect the graves of our ancestors.”