Ongoing Battle Over Heritage, Economic Development

Shinnecock Indian Nation
Shinnecock Indian Nation members protest construction at a Montauk Highway property in Shinnecock Hills which tribal members say houses ancient burial sites.

Shinnecock Indian Nation tribal members say what they see as Southampton Town’s slow bureaucracy to help them protect sacred burial grounds is the latest move in an ongoing battle between the two parties dating back nearly three decades, when the municipality fought the reservation’s no tax on cigarettes in 1984.

“There’s a pretty clear pattern to us,” Shinnecock Indian Nation Council of Trustees Vice Chairman Lance Gumbs said. “We’ve always had a contentious relationship with the town because we’ve basically been ignored. And any time we’ve tried to spur some economic development, from the cigarette tax to gaming to the monuments . . . any time we try to do something economically viable for the tribe the town is suing us.”

He said there’s a possibility these projects are part of why the town seems to be stalling on passing legislation to better protect what has been a known burial site in Shinnecock Hills.

“People have this misconception that we’ve only been on this little piece of land here, but we have a map that shows the different areas where our people lived — from Shinnecock Hills to the canal that used to be call Canoe Place and beyond,” Gumbs said. “And when our people died they were buried right in that area, on the highest point of land. We were there until 1859.”

He said the tribe holds the land in the same vein the Great Sioux Nation holds its Black Hills, and for the past 30 years he’s seen a big push to develop Shinnecock Hills.

“We’re doing things on our land to benefit the nation and to benefit our people,” Gumbs said. “Any time we try to do anything who is the arch nemesis? The town. If you stood in our shoes and looked at it, how can you see it any other way? You can’t whitewash this.”

Tribal members elect officials just like the town does — providing services, housing, programs for seniors, health care, and a dental program, and Gumbs wishes the town could respect the tribe fighting for a better way of life and protection of its heritage.

The Shinnecock Indian Nation unveiled a 61-foot-tall billboard sign, known to tribal members as a monument, that has generated millions of dollars in ad revenue. Gumbs said members, young and old, were crying during the sign’s first lighting.

“It’s a testament. We have survived here in the Hamptons, and literally that’s what it’s been, in this ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,’” he said of the project. “We have a fiscal responsibility to the tribe, and it was moving to see something we’ve accomplished as a community, as a people. It was the most beautiful thing I’d witnessed in my life.”

The nation is looking to build two gas stations, and potentially partner to build a gaming center. The tribe broke ground on an agreement with Conor Green Consulting to build and operate a 3600-square-foot medical marijuana dispensary in November of last year, and earlier this month reached a deal with PSEG Long Island and LIPA that resulted in the tribe receiving payment to let the utility company run a cable under tribal land along Sunrise Highway. At the Shinnecock’s request, PSEG also hooked up electric service for its second billboard-monument.

“People come out to the Hamptons and drive right by us. They don’t even know an Indian community is here. Well, they know now,” Gumbs said. “We put a marker out here so we’re no longer the forgotten people. We’ve been here, always have been good neighbors to the people around us, and we have to do what is in the best interest of our people to maintain our identity, our culture, our traditions, our heritage. That takes money in this day and age.”

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