Support For Shinnecock Gravesite Protection

Bryan Downey
Shinnecock Indian Nation members protest construction last year at a Montauk Highway property in Shinnecock Hills, the tribe’s ancient burial grounds, where remains were found.

“The Shinnecock people have been living on eastern Long Island for over 1000 years and remain here today as friends and neighbors, business owners, employees, veterans, teachers, and municipal employees,” Michael Daly said. “Their history is our history and their gravesites are our gravesites. Just because they have not used the traditional colonial method of headstoning, it doesn’t make their graves any less important or respectable. The Shinnecock Nation and its people deserve to be recognized and their cemeteries and burying grounds deserve to be protected every bit as much as colonial and modern cemeteries and burying grounds are today.”

Many Southampton Town residents share the Town of Southampton Zoning Board of Appeals and Southampton Anti-Bias Task Force member’s sentiment. His message was one of nearly 20 to the town in support of amending town code to add a protection of unmarked graves clause, and approving a moratorium on certain development actions within particular areas of Shinnecock Hills.

“I also support imposing a six-month moratorium on any ground disturbance within the Fort Hill and the Sugar Loaf areas of Shinnecock Hills without first completing an archaeological review,” Daly said. “We in the Town of Southampton take great pride in our history and in preserving, acknowledging, and protecting as much of our heritage as possible through landmarks and historic districts.”

Historic burying grounds and cemeteries were identified by the landmarks board and a map was created. Some sites have been purchased with Community Preservation Fund monies over the years to protect the area, including a 3.3-acre property on Hawthorne Road in 2018, where remains and a flask were found during excavation.

During an April 28 public hearing on the topic, in a town board meeting conducted via Zoom, Shinnecock Hills homeowner David Donohue echoed a handful of property owners in the area who wrote letters to the town asking for further discussion on the topic. He said he’s concerned about the 200 or so residents that would be affected by the legislation.

“Southampton has preserved a lot of land,” he said. “I don’t think you guys are taking into account people that own property — whether for two weeks or 40 years. We have clear title to these properties; we have rights develop the property. I think the community in general has been a very good neighbor to the Shinnecock and wants to continue to be that way. But to put this kind of moratorium in place, especially under the economic conditions we’re in, would hurt not only the residents, but the workers looking for jobs in building, construction, pools, or additions.”

Ralph Carballal, the owner of a parcel on Acqua Drive, said he found it “incomprehensible” the town is contemplating a moratorium on building on his land without a more formal public hearing at which he can express his concerns.

“I purchased this property in 2004 with all my savings with the expectation that this would provide for my retirement,” he said in a letter to the town. “I have paid taxes on this property, even though I have no house on it, and use no town services. I have paid in excess of $125,000 in taxes over the past 16 years in order to keep this land.”

Supervisor Jay Schneiderman stressed the proposed legislation does not say a homeowner cannot build, but that archeological surveys would need to be conducted to ensure work will not be disturbing a gravesite. This could add a couple thousand dollars to the cost of any project.

“These are state-recognized culturally-sensitive areas. That sensitivity exists; it’s well-documented,” the supervisor said, adding there’s people on both sides of the issue, including a large contingent of people that have been asking for this legislation for a long time. “It’s something the board will have to wrestle with and decide whether a moratorium is the right action in the interim while we evaluate our laws that are in place to see if this is the right step to allow the board to consider other steps.”

In an effort to gather as much community input as possible, the public hearing was adjourned to May 26 at 6 PM.

“Imagine a bulldozer . . . destroying a cemetery for new homes. Imagine how that would feel for you to see that happening. Just because the natives in our area did not leave monuments on their graves, that does not mean the graves are not there,” Westhampton resident Suzanne Ruggles wrote in a letter. “Let’s stop the trauma. Let’s protect what’s left of sacred land. Let’s protect, as a start, Shinnecock burial sites.”

Skyler Johnson, a Mt. Sinai resident who is running for State Senate, agreed with the sentiment that burial rights of one society are no more or less sacred than those of any other.

“The Shinnecock people are some of the kindest, most generous people you will ever meet . . . and if these past few weeks have proved anything, it’s that we are all made up of red blood, we all need oxygen to breathe,” he said. “Our Shinnecock friends have different traditions, and that does not devalue their culture and traditions, nor lessen the amount of respect that we owe their ancestors.”

Some Shinnecock Hills residents asked the town for fairness in its proposed legislation.

“We believe it would be more appropriate to have thoughtful regulations that cover the entire town fairly and equally,” Janine Abbatecola said.

“I think you really need to find a way to appease both parties, not restricting Southampton Town residents in any way — protect the rights of property owners,” Donohue said. “I feel like this is a situation where the town needs to tread lightly. We’re on a slippery slope here.”

Tribal member Rebecca Genia, a grave protection warrior who leads a group of likeminded individuals, said the Shinnecock Nation and her group’s members will not sit idle while desecration she calls “lingering injustice” continues. She called the law “long overdue.”

“I urge you to act quickly and decisively to implement legislation to finally demonstrate the respect that is due to our fellow community members and their deceased and to include recognition and information about Shinnecock ancestral gravesites and other Native American heritage sites in our town resources material,” Daly said. “Just by virtue of the fact that the Shinnecock people have been resilient enough to survive the onslaught and cruelty of nearly 400 years of colonization, and today contribute so much to our local community, they deserve this acknowledgement and respect.”

“You can stop a continuing wrong, a cultural genocide with ‘the stroke of a pen,’” local business owner and gravesite protection warrior Matthew Jamison Ballard said. “It’s the way forward to a stronger, mutually beneficial partnership with your oldest neighbors whose stewardship of this land has been never-ending. Become a beacon of what’s right and how to move forward in these uncertain times.”

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