Shinnecock Voices: Mother & Son Continue Family Art Tradition

Gloria Smith and Lyle Smith presenting their art at Southampton Arts Center
Gloria Smith and Lyle Smith presenting their art at Southampton Arts Center
Germain Smith

Art exists in everything we see. Whether you are looking at an automobile, a lamp, a dress or a fishing boat, an artist dreamt it and designed it. Some art tells a story or is created to adorn the walls of our home. Other times, art is functional, like a magnificent coffee table or chair. Even the natural life around us, such as a spider spinning its web and the bird building its nest, participate in the creation of art.

Art has existed here on Long Island for thousands of years, created and practiced by the many Indigenous communities that have called this island home. Our people have created beautiful beads from the various shells found on our shores, like the wampum created from quahog clams. Other times dyes made from berries were used to paint clothing, and beautiful baskets were woven from wood and grasses for fishing and other uses.

One of Long Island’s beautiful art styles comes in the form of duck decoys. The late Shinnecock Chief Eugene Cuffee and Charles S. Bunn, both born in the 1860s, were two of the most well-known decoy carvers. Generally using cedar, tupelo or high-density cork, Cuffee and Bunn would masterfully design and carve beautiful waterfowl decoys to be used for hunting and as home art installations. If you are lucky to own one of these pieces of history, you are holding priceless art.

A descendant of both Cuffee and Bunn, Gloria Smith has also found art to hold a special place in her heart. Smith, who will be 90 years old this year and resides on the Shinnecock reservation, describes herself as having been born with art. The self-taught artist worked up until she was 87 years old. When you talk with Smith, you can feel the creativity shooting from her pores.

After retiring she had so much creative energy to share that she asked her sons to build an art studio in her backyard. Over the last couple of years Smith has created over 40 paintings in that studio. Primarily working in acrylics on canvas, she explores both traditional native themes and abstract designs in her art.

She often uses vibrant colors and dramatic lines to express herself. While admiring her work, I noticed that there is very little style repetition, with each piece telling its own unique story. Smith says that she finds painting to be relaxing and therapeutic, with her studio offering moments of tranquility.

Smith’s children have also been blessed with the family artist gene. In particular, Lyle Smith has carried on the family tradition of both painting and decoy carving. Lyle was born in Southampton and is a lifelong resident of the Shinnecock reservation.

A graduate of Southampton High School and Nassau Community College, he went on to join the Marine Corps and later became a police officer. Several years ago, he was in a bad motorcycle accident while on duty as a police officer. While recovering from his injuries, he began to study the decoy styles of his ancestors and began to enter the craft himself.

Lyle’s grandfather and dad were Shinnecock hunting guides and his uncle, Norman, was a traditional carver as well. With such a rich family history of carving, Lyle’s passion and skill as a duck carver is simply natural. His meticulous attention to detail is seen in each decoy he carves and paints. He does so in the traditional Shinnecock way, honoring the ones who have come before him and who established the art form.

Along with fishing, farming, clamming and bigger game hunting, fowl hunting has helped sustain Shinnecock people for hundreds of years. The decoys, while beautiful, hold powerful cultural significance. Lyle is helping to preserve that essence of Shinnecock culture and shares it with younger fowlers within the Shinnecock Nation.

Gloria and Lyle have had the honor and pleasure of showing together at the Southampton Arts Center. Sharing those moments tells the true story of art and creativity being passed along from generation to generation within the Shinnecock community.

Christian Weaver
Christian Weaver


Christian Weaver, Wampum Group president, has been in the development and strategic planning industry for nearly 20 years. Weaver is passionate about lifting communities and has dedicated his career to making a positive impact in the lives of others.

“Shinnecock Voices” is a monthly column in which citizens of the Shinnecock Nation share stories and opinions and discuss the projects and campaigns they’re working on, to allow readers an inside view into their incredible community.

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