Shinnecock Memorial Walk: On Peace, Remembrance, Thanks

Shinnecock Powwow Kids
Shinnecock Powwow Kids, Photo: Nicholas Chowske

Now that the holiday season is full upon us, it seems like a good time to slow things down from the hustle and sell and remember what the holiday hubbub is really about. Though the predominant message we get is often buy, buy, buy, there are some who truly do have the goodness of the season in their hearts.

On a recent weekend on Shinnecock, a Memorial Walk was held, dedicated to the memories of those tribal members who had passed on and to honor those who remain. Shinnecock is a small and insular tribal community, where every passing is felt acutely and deeply—and as everyone knows, the pain of loss can last for a long, long time. We’ve had some young members pass in the last few years before their time; they are missed even more acutely, perhaps, for the promise of a future that will never be realized. We will never know who could have become what and how they would have benefited the nation. It was in this spirit that the Memorial Walk was organized.

The participants for the Memorial Walk met in the community center, where tables were set up with breakfast food, along with a pot of homemade chili, corn bread, coffee and other foods and beverages. Materials were available for participants to make posters about those we hold in our hearts and want to honor, and to convey messages about suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and some of the other ills that have affected the Shinnecock people. Participants trickled in and gathered to talk, while making tobacco bundles for prayers that would then be tossed into a ceremonial fire across from the Shinnecock church. The fire has been kept lit since this summer, as a beacon of hope against violence against women and other tribal members. It has become an ad hoc meeting place of sorts, where people gather to talk about any recent dark happenings in the community and seek a way to resolve them.

The walk was from the fire to the cemetery; first in one direction for those we’ve lost and then the opposite way for those who are still with us in need of our support and prayers. A group of singers and a hand drummer lead the procession, with walkers following. Although it’s a relatively short walk from the church to the cemetery, it can also be the longest when it’s a loved one who’s being laid to rest.

The water of Shinnecock Bay that day was like glass, and the sky a beautiful azure blue. The procession paused to look out over the view, before continuing back to the fire to make prayers and speak about loved ones. Then it continued in the opposite direction.

It was at the fire that I witnessed an amazing sight: proof that someone up there is listening to our prayers and watching out for us. As one of the women spoke about the need for healing from the hurt we have all experienced and how the walk was not only to mourn, but also to celebrate the joy that our loved ones, deceased and living, bring to us every day, two swans flew over the steeple of the church. I’ve asked others if they saw them too, but so far only two people said they did. Some said they heard the wings, some said they were so engrossed in their own thoughts nothing got through and most were staring into the fire contemplating their own thoughts and prayers.

I believe we have survived for as long as we have because there is truly a higher power somewhere, somehow, looking out for us. It’s the only way I can explain that here we are today on our little peninsula of heaven with our backs to the sea and surrounded by people still conspiring to take the little that we have left.

It is the season of thanksgiving, as well as the celebration of most world religions. If you listen, read, or watch the news, it seems that the world is going to hell in the proverbial handbasket. Don’t believe it. Instead, believe that there is always hope and there is always love. And thank whatever deity you believe in for whatever time you get to spend loving and being loved. It’s really what the season is all about, after all. Sometimes, just walking with the memories of those lost and the love of those who are left does the trick. Happy holidays. Peace to all.

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