Notes From the Rez: One Giant Step… Back

Great seal of the Shinnecock Indian Nation
Great seal of the Shinnecock Indian Nation

The current state of Shinnecock reminds me of the saying, “May you live in interesting times,” which, depending upon the tone, could be a blessing or a curse… or maybe both. One thing is certain—these are interesting times for the Shinnecock Nation. There’s a lot going on, but it’s also business as usual.

A new Shinnecock constitution is up for approval in less than a month, and if the vote passes, the tribe will see sweeping changes to its current system of government.

Here’s a little bit of background. In 1818, the population of Southampton had grown enough in strength and number to limit the powers of the trustees by statute. The trustees were elected by and responsible to only the 15 Proprietors and their successors who had been granted land by the crown and purchased from the Shinnecock. One hundred and seventy-three years later, the Shinnecock established a tribal council to advise and assist the trustees in ameliorating the aforementioned problems and serve as liaison between the tribal membership and their leaders. The Tribal Council comprises 13 men and women, while the trustees have historically been—and continue to be—three men. That glass ceiling has yet to be breached.

In the 20 years since it was established, the Tribal Council has kept tribe members informed and the community center and tribal offices functioning. It brought elections back to the homeland and updated to voting machines, it drafted ordinances and laws, interacted with local, state and federal governments, researched grants and funding, and formed various committees for those seeking to serve their tribe. The Council even proposed several editions of a constitution.

The current constitution has little resemblance to those drafted and worked on for more than 15 years by the Tribal Council. Several times these drafts were brought before the tribe for approval, but the trustees would not bring it to a vote. Perhaps having checks and/or balances to their power was unacceptable. More likely, it’s because the Shinnecock cannot imagine not having the office of trustee, no matter how outdated the concept might be. Perhaps it’s hard for people to give up something that’s been with them for more than 300 years. But, unlike the Southampton Town Trustees, Shinnecock trustees still hold the reins of power.

The proposed Shinnecock tribal government would include a “Council” of seven elected trustees and two advisory groups—the Elders Council and a Youth Council (neither of which have policies or procedures in place)—while eligible voting members of the tribe would serve as a “General Council.” These advisory committees would replace the Tribal Council, leaving the seven trustees as the only elected governmental body.

At this point in time, there are questions concerning whether the proper process was followed in bringing the current draft to such a quick vote. As noted in the general press, Shinnecock is in the middle of a leadership crisis regarding the trustees, and elections for the new board will be held in less than a month. It is doubtful and quite foolish to attempt to bring such a dramatic change in such a short time—not to mention a bit sketchy. But, as noted in an earlier article, we’ve been doing this for a long time.

So stay tuned. If you get tired of reading about the Vatican, Obama and Boehner, Syria, Kenya, North Korea or the Kardashians, there’s always something interesting happening on the Rez.

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. He has worked as a dancer, dance teacher, cook, painter, landscaper, psychotherapist/social worker, security assistant, deli clerk and anything else that paid. He has been riding the same motorcycle for 35 years. Phillips won the 2012 Dan’s Papers$6,000 Literary Prize for Nonfiction for his story, “Magic Shirts.”

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