If you’re looking at Shinnecock Reservation from the east, at an altitude of 1,000 feet, you’ll see it—a face roaring at the ocean. This is the face of the Shinnecock Spirit. I first noticed it while I was working on a project, compiling maps and photos of the Shinnecock peninsula. I’ve worked on various projects over the years, viewing maps and photos from the late 1700s up to the present day, but it wasn’t until two years ago that I saw The Face. It was as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes, or rather, a gift granted.
The Spirit’s eyes and mouth are formed by creeks and marsh drains, its hair is marsh grass and woods. Perhaps it’s holding the ocean at bay, or singing back to shore of Shinnecock men who were lost during the Circassian tragedy (Dan Rattiner wrote a wonderful article in the February 9 edition of this paper about that shipwreck).
The Spirit is neither male nor female. I don’t know how many other people have seen it, but you can be sure that once this gets out, tattoos will be showing up on the arms, necks and backsides of those who want to claim its power. But it took me more than 50 years of learning every facet of that countenance before being granted the gift. Fifty-plus years of swimming in its boundary waters and creeks, walking its marshes, crawling through briar patches, learning where the grapes and berries grow, climbing its trees, camping in its woods, and finding where the old homes once stood and the old roads ran. It took a lifetime of exploring…and love. Now, I see faces in everything—the lie of the marsh grass, a swirl of sand, the bark of a sassafras tree, a piece of driftwood or even a pile of stones. The place is a living, breathing entity.
Until a few years ago, I would swim around the Shinnecock peninsula; starting from Heady Creek, into Shinnecock Bay, to come ashore at the edge of Uncle Harry Williams’ property on Fort Pond. Scary as it might sound, I never felt any trepidation, even when my kayak capsized two weeks after the spring thaw and I had to swim to shore. It was during that ordeal that I first heard the Spirit laughing and singing in the voices of friends and relatives who’d passed on, all coaxing me to the shore of their last resting place—the Shinnecock Cemetery. I laughed and sang back at them while swimming in that dark frigid water and they gave me the strength to go on. I still laugh and sing down at the cemetery some nights.
Depending on the tide, or whether I stopped to catch some sun, or divert into a marsh drain, it was an hour-and-a-half to a two-hour swim. Sometimes my cousin would accompany me in his kayak or rowboat. But mostly I did it alone, bumping into nosy turtles, swimming in schools of snappers or bluefish and flotillas of jellyfish. Stinging jellyfish caused problems, but if I kept my head, got through them, then dove to the bottom for a handful of black creek mud or sand to rub on my skin, it nullified the venom enough to continue on my way. (Imagine being a jellyfish, floating along, minding your own business, only to have a clumsy land animal run into you and ruin your day.) After one such encounter, as I lay on a sandbar covered in mud, a plane flying overhead must have mistook me for a corpse; it circled three times until I waved at it and then it proceeded on its way.
The Spirit never let any harm come to me, even if I was more of a danger to myself than anything nature had to throw at me. And those times when fear would began to creep in my head? So, too, did the exhilaration of being alive. It never fails to make me laugh out loud.
The Spirit is under threat now, not just from the rising waters of the ocean and bay. There is a rampant disregard for the land where it resides. Roads have been cut through the woods, ostensibly in case there is ever a fire and the fire department trucks have to get through, but follow it and you’ll see the scars left by quads and big trucks that leave garbage and debris in the woods. The shore is being eroded by trucks of various individuals who use it for their own gain, mindless or uncaring of the damage they do. In the woods there are fewer wild animals due to noise and domestic pets; where whippoorwill, quail, pheasant, owl, hawk, fox songs were heard, there is now an unnatural quiet—or the sound of revving engines.
Still, the Shinnecock peninsula is a beautiful place to live. Sometimes I look across the water at the huge houses on the ocean and wonder—do their owners have a sense of place, time, history of belonging? Do they realize their smallness and insignificance, living on the coast of the huge Atlantic? Judging by the money they’re spending on moving sand around in the hopes that it makes a difference, it’s doubtful.
My father laughs and says one day the ocean will inevitably come over the dunes and reclaim the flat lands, including Shinnecock. Superstorm Sandy and the Nor’easters show that it’s already happening. “God doesn’t care how much money you have, He’ll get what he wants,” Dad says.
The Spirit will roar and sing until it finally succumbs to the inevitable, like we all do. Until then, listen for its voice every time there is an offshore wind. You might also hear some laughter—that’ll be me.
James Keith Phillips was born and raised on the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton. He holds a BA in Theater Arts and MSW from SUNY Stony Brook, and an MFA in Writing from Long Island University.
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