The Shinnecock Indian Nation has voted to disband their Gaming Authority. It’s a sad day for the tribe. But after years of high hopes, it has all come to nothing as far as a major gambling resort is concerned, and it is a necessary move. The vote was 110 to 41 to disband.
The long and the winding road to this decision is surely a lesson for the tribe, and perhaps for all of us. Until the 1990s, the tribe lived as it had since ancient times—as a kind of extended family controlled by a tribal chief or chiefs. There were KEEP OUT signs posted at the entry roads that led into the 1.3-square-mile peninsula in Southampton that is the tribal grounds. Outsiders knew there were about 500 members in the tribe, that they had been forced onto this reservation after the White Men came in the 17th century and required that they accept it. Tribal members were employed off the reservation, mostly in menial jobs. As the editor of this weekly newspaper, I would occasionally hear about news on the reservation. But calls to the tribe for comment were always turned away, always with a brusque reminder that these were private matters and I should mind my own business.
At that time, almost all contact between the tribe and the local outside community consisted of a series of delis, smoke shops and Indian souvenir shops on Old Montauk Highway, the northern border of the tribal property. There was also, on Labor Day Weekend, a two-day Indian powwow open to the public. Outsiders could come to the reservation and watch the dancing, enjoy the food and drink and meet up with tribes from near and far as they had for half a century or more. But anyone who drove in there at that time could see that the tribe lived in reduced circumstances.
In 1995, however, a young man named Lance Gumbs, son of Harriet Gumbs, graduated Southampton High School and got an M.B.A. from Adelphi College. He ran a deli-souvenir operation on Old Montauk Highway, but he also ran a souvenir shop in a shopping center elsewhere on Long Island. A likeable young fellow, the tribe selected him to be one of the three trustees. He was not afraid to make changes.
It was soon learned by us outsiders that the Shinnecocks, in spite of their long and well-documented history, were not recognized as an official tribe by the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. An effort to start re-applying for recognition had begun in the 1970s, but had gone nowhere. The State of New York recognized the tribe, but that didn’t mean much. Only Bureau of Indian Affairs recognition could bring serious financial help.
Gumbs and other members of the tribe decided to restart the effort. One of the major reasons they did this was not only to obtain federal government help, but because federal recognition was needed for eligibility to run a gambling casino. By that time, federally recognized tribes were wildly successful in running Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods.
In late June of 2003, tribal trustees held a press conference that brought media and tribal members to waterfront land that the tribe owns on Peconic Bay in Hampton Bays where, with a bulldozer, the tribe cleared multiple acres of trees on land they said would soon have built upon it a 65,000-square-foot gambling casino. Trustee Charles Smith said this was about the preservation of the tribe. Gumbs said the state could not tell them what to do on their land. But a judge did. In August, a federal court ordered an 18-month injunction on the project. This sequence was certainly a wake-up call, for both the tribe and the town.
The push for federal recognition now proceeded with speed. The tribe’s dealings with the community were easily found, in written treaties and documentation of other events dating from the colonial era. For example, in 1876, 10 braves from the tribe died in the shipwreck of the Circassian on the rocks in Bridgehampton. They had been hired to offload its cargo after it came aground. But it was mid-December and a bitter snow and ice storm came up; the men were left to freeze to death on that ship. Shinnecocks also fought with honor in many wars defending America.
A man from California named Ivy Ong reportedly promised to give the tribe $1.5 million to exclusively represent them in the creation of a gambling casino in 2003, and a push accelerated toward the gaining of federal recognition. But local residents did not want a casino on the East End. They wanted it west of this community. It was going to be a big battle. During this time, a Detroit company called Gateway Casino Resorts took over the gaming-development relationship with the tribe, in 2004. And after that, on June 15, 2010, the Bureau of Indian Affairs granted the Shinnecock Tribe official federal recognition.
The tribe had earlier decided that the council of elders should not be appointed by those who came before, but by the vote of all male tribal members. Soon after that, women in the tribe were made eligible to vote. Now, with the money coming in from the developers and the federal government, the tribe created committees to deal with education, health and public relations, and gambling. It was now a democracy. Good things were to come. The Shinnecocks, convinced not to build a casino resort on the East End, were now hoping to be the tribe of choice for a casino perhaps at the Nassau Coliseum, or at a racetrack, or on some vacant land in central Long Island. A number of people in the tribe were now working full-time on matters relating to opening a casino.
It all quickly went downhill. Two years ago, one faction of the tribe accused another faction, from the Gaming Authority, of various wrongdoings. One accusation was that the accused faction was working on buying land—upon which the tribe might one day have a casino—without telling other tribal members.
Those accused denied this was the case. They said it was all politics. Then an FBI investigation was begun, and at that point the company from Detroit reportedly stopped paying money to the tribe.
Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation allowing the creation of gambling casinos in this state that would not need the involvement of Indian tribes. One group now heads up a casino at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens. Others are competing to run a casino in the Catskills. Then, last year, a fire consumed the trailer on the reservation that held all the business records of the tribal Gaming Authority. And now the Gaming Authority has been disbanded.
The tribe could still, if they wanted to, build a smaller operation, a bingo hall or slot machine parlor, on their land. No outside help is needed for them to do this. While disbanding the Gaming Authority, the tribe also voted to create an ordinance that would regulate shops selling cigarettes on the reservation and collect fees from them.
I venture to say that if, through all this, the Shinnecock Nation had continued under the rule of tribal chiefs as in the old days, things would have happened very differently. Those tribal chiefs would be prospering mightily, and so would the tribe.
This, in my opinion, is a price the tribe has, happily, paid for the sloppy effects of democracy and freedom, and a good thing, too.
This story is far from over.