A Great Gamble: A Planned Casino Brings Hope & Conflict for the Shinnecock People

The embattled Shinnecock Nation, currently in major conflict with New York State over its two monument billboards on Sunrise Highway, has announced plans to start construction on a casino on its reservation this summer. Leaders and activists in the Shinnecock Nation expect the casino to be a massive economic boon to the nation’s struggling people, while members of the surrounding Southampton community are deeply concerned with the negative impact this could have on the Hamptons year-round. 

The planned Shinnecock Casino Hamptons will be a Class II casino, as approved by the National Indian Gaming Commission [NIGC]. This means that there would only be slot machines and electronically controlled tables, as opposed to live dealers, similar to Jake’s 58 Hotel & Casino in Islandia. As the casino will be on sovereign land, they are not beholden to Town of Southampton bylaws and regulations.

But what makes this plan different from the last few plans for a Shinnecock casino, which was attempted in 2003 and then again in 2011? 

“There’s no time like the present,” says Shinnecock Chairman Bryan Polite of the casino’s recent announcement. “It’s been a 20-year quest, and we’re at the culmination of a lot of hard work, not just over the last couple of years, but the past 20 years of federal recognition, then getting the government reorganized, then getting our gaming ordinance approved by NIGC, getting the right partners.”

The Shinnecock people are working with Tri State Partners to assist with construction and operation of the casino. 

“Over the past several years we have witnessed the suffering of the Shinnecock Nation and also seen the opportunity to lift their people from the poverty they currently live in,” said Tri State Partner and Managing Member Jack Morris in a February 17 press conference. “This will be a property Long Island residents will enjoy visiting, while enabling the Shinnecock Nation to take advantage of opportunities other members of Native American nations have harnessed.”

Shinnecock activist Tela Troge is working on the casino project. Matt Ballard

Tela Troge, a spokeswoman for the Shinnecock Nation and a tribal attorney, has been an active member of the nation her whole life, along with Polite. While Troge and Polite are both relatively young, their desire to bring their nation to prosperity comes from learning from those that came before. 

“I think our paths were laid for us by our mothers and our grandmothers, and our aunts and our families, they really taught us the importance of our culture in our community,” she says. “And both of us have really been involved since [we were] children and going to tribe meetings and seeing the needs for improvement and getting the education necessary to make meaningful changes….the community that I was raised in is a very beautiful, brilliant, kind, generous culture, and unfortunately, we have faced a lot of hardship, a lot of injustice—genocide, slavery, land theft, the spread of disease, we’ve seen it all. Together, collectively, we’ve managed to adapt and to survive, and that’s what we plan to do going forward. It’s not really a choice that we have, it’s just a duty and obligation that we have to fulfill.”

Shinnecock Chairman Bryan PoliteJeremy Dennis

Polite adds, “My hope for future generations is the hope that our parents had and their parents before them—to continue to be good stewards of this land, to make sure that our culture survives and that our people are taken care of, not just for this generation, the next generation, the next seven generations and the next 10. When we say we are still here, [we need] to keep that going, to have this land and the culture for another 10,000 years.”

But the surrounding community of Southampton doesn’t see the casino, which will be located off the already-congested Montauk Highway, in the same positive and hopeful light. Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman is extremely concerned. 

“A casino on the reservation would have serious negative impacts to the region,” says Schneiderman. “The traffic is already not moving in the morning and afternoon. It couldn’t handle that type of use. We’re talking about 1,000 video lottery terminals in a 76,000 square foot building in a two-lane highway.” 

Schneiderman also does not believe that the casino will help the Shinnecock economically. 

“I don’t see why people would go there to be able to access Class II gaming when they can do that at Jake’s 58,” he says, noting that the Islandia casino is more conveniently located. 

Schneiderman also believes that Shinnecock Casino Hamptons is more of a move by the nation to get approval for a casino off the reservation. 

“I do think if they could get a commercial license for another site, they would take this off the table,” Schneiderman says, noting “the governor’s going to be handing out three commercial licenses for downstate and they’re certainly trying to get one of them. I think that this is their way of saying, ‘if we don’t get one, we’re building at the reservation.’”

The dissonance between Troge and Polite and Schneiderman is quite stark, but it’s not entirely surprising. The relationship between Southampton and the Shinnecock Nation is contentious, to say the least. 

“The town government took our land and has sued us multiple times, so contentious is an understatement,” says Polite. “But I will say this—it’s gotten better. I think that this town board has made a concentrated effort to try to work with us, being on the legislation for the Graves Protection Act, which needs further work, but they’re listening, I think. There’s always going to be issues because of the long history of injustices. The town government, as a whole, originated with a lot of theft of land. We were fenced in. There’s a lot of historical trauma there. But the Shinnecocks are always ready and willing to go down that path and I do commend this current town board for trying to work with us.”

Schneiderman has been proactive in establishing the graves act, which establishes protocols if human remains are encountered during construction activities in the town. 

And Troge recalls a statement Schneiderman made to Dan’s Papers in November during a month-long sovereignty camp and protest that she found particularly moving. 

“I read an incredible statement by [Schneiderman] acknowledging the history that I do have a lot of faith in Jay Schneiderman and the current town board,” she recalled. “I think there’s a lot of room to grow cooperatively.”

The statement Troge is referring to: “[I can’t] undo the history, beginning with colonial times, in terms of how the Shinnecock were treated—their land stolen, disease brought here, lots of questionable treaties and land deals. I can’t undo that. But at least we can try to work together now and address the ongoing issues of poverty, malnutrition and economic development.”

Today, Schneiderman says that he’s tried to work with the Nation on other projects he thinks will be beneficial to both the Shinnecocks and Southampton. 

“There are a lot of things that they can do to improve the economic conditions of their people,” he says. “They’ve talked about the rest area with the restaurant and gas station. I said I would support that. They’ve talked about building a hotel. I said, I would support that.”

The casino, then, may be the latest cause of conflict between the Shinnecock people and Southampton. But whether the planned construction starts this summer or they are able to secure a location off the reservation in a more centrally located spot, Polite’s goal for his people remains clear: “Survival and prosperity.”

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