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The First Beautiful People: The Shinnecock

Originally Posted: August 07, 2007

Lon S. Cohen

The curator of The Shinnecock Nation Museum & Cultural Center asked me to have a seat while Matauqus finished. Matauqus is the Assistant Curator and Site Manager for the Museum is one of the current Shinnecock residents who have gained knowledge that is almost ten thousand years old. A few Shinnecock are reviving the old ways of their culture. The Museum is becoming the definitive resource on the cultural heritage and history of the Nation as told by the Shinnecock people themselves.

Photo by Patti Courville

With the establishment of the museum on their reservation they have taken another step to preserve their Algonquin heritage and culture. In honor of their Ancestors, whom the Shinnecock are taught to respect, a carved wood door in the figure of a deer marks the dedication and the entrance to the white pine log building.

"The Native Americans sprang up almost simultaneously all over the Northeast, according to the archeological record," Mr. Martine told me as we waited. "The most ancient records show that the Paleo Projectal Points show that they emerged about ten thousand years ago."

For that reason, the Shinnecock must rely on the broken geological records and the customs of their brothers from other tribes in the Northeast to fill in the gaps.

For example, the Shinnecock were mighty whale hunters thousands of years ago. They carved giant canoes from trees with a girth that rivaled even the Redwood. Twenty or thirty Shinnecock hunters paddled offshore to spear whales in the Atlantic. It was a long and proud tradition, but the ways of making those large canoes are as lost as those once indigenous trees. The Shinnecock now rely on the craftsmen of a Massachusetts tribe (Wampanog) to teach them the ways that they have lost.

The Wampanogs are located near Plymouth, Massachusetts. They regularly recreated the Thanksgiving feast and run a regular camp village in a 17th or 18th century style. The Wampanog people are trained in the arts and crafts of their tribe, which they share with other Native American tribes all over the Northeast since the techniques of the lost arts are very similar. The Native Americans of this area are somewhat culturally related.

Matauqus has just enough time to fill me in on what they have been doing at the cultural center in the last year or so to regain some of that lost knowledge. He is a handsome young man, fit and very energetic. He gives a few instructions to his assistants and reluctantly leaves his much needed lunch behind in the office as he and David lead me up the spiral staircase in the middle of the museum outside to the front lawn. When you drive by the museum nowadays, there are a few things out there that haven't been seen on Long Island native land for a hundred years or more. Two canoes, a reed covered hut and a big fire pit are arranged on the eastern side of the building.

Photo by Patti Courville

He tells me that they have been burning the two canoes for about a year. A traditional canoe building method whereby the natives carved the canoe from a solid tree trunk with fire. They smolder the tinder and firewood in the recess until the wood in the trunk gets very hot and brittle. Then with axes and other tools, they scrape and chip away until eventually you have a space inside the tree truck where men can sit.

"The fire does most of the work," Matauqus points out.

He lets me know that the fire itself is not what burns the wood but the hot, hot coals and embers underneath. Little by little, the inside of the trunk is whittled away by crisping it and then scrapping it away. It looks like tedious work. David says that it should openly take a few weeks to make a normal sized canoe but that is only when you work around the clock. The Shinnecock have much to do now so they can't spend that type of manpower on the canoe project. For about a year or so they have been carving and burning two canoes.

Next to the canoes is a rather large hut called a Wickiup. The outside is a layered with thatched phragmites, beach grass reed, or grasses and saplings. Tightly bound, the thatching technique should keep the inside relatively dry. A Wickiup is the Shinnecock equivalent of a Single Family Home.

I ask to step inside and the curators tell me to go ahead. A little embarrassed I duck into the Wickiup but that feeling is overwhelmed immediately by awe. I have crossed a threshold. At the center is a fire pit and in the roof is a smoke hole. Imagine in a space no bigger than fifteen to twenty feet in diameter an entire family slept, ate, talked and lived out their lives. I crouch down, not because there's not room (on the contrary the roof appears cathedral like in the darkness it is so high up) but to experience the grandeur of the place. In the dark I meet people who lived on Long Island in the traditional ways for centuries. Perhaps it is a family whose father is out hunting whale or the mother is a great craftswoman.

From what I gather, the Wickiups were not haphazardly strewn about the territory but generally centered somewhat on a common open clearing where the natives held festivals, gatherings and great cooking parties.

Photo by Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum

Speaking of great cooking parties, David and Matauqus tell me that I missed one just recently. They had a lobster festival in the traditional way. That is what the fire pit is for. The Shinnecock were not strangers to the sweetness of lobster meat. They wrapped the little red guys up in seaweed and roasted them slowly on top of hot rocks in the pits.

These are aspects of a traditional Shinnecock village and soon, with a little help from donations, there will be a replica village on the reservation. At the entrance to the museum David shows me a replica of what the village will look like.

The Shinnecock Village he shows me will offer visitors a glimpse into the lives of the original Hamptonites. With waterfront property on the Shinnecock River they will show how the first people of Long Island traveled the waters in their Mashuee (burnt out canoes), lived in Wickiups and ate nothing but the freshest plants and vegetables. The hope is to show an actual, working Shinnecock village complete with interactivity and education.

The first permanent exhibit, "A Walk With The People" consists of murals painted by David Martine. Not only is he the museum's curator, but an artist with aspirations to produce some graphic novels on out-of-print books. David Martine, the museum curator, is a purposeful man. He has long black hair that he kept tucked up under a hat and he speaks with a slight accent that I immediately project as a Native American type of deep drawl. Born in 1960 in Southampton, New York, he is of Shinnecock/Montauk, Chiricahua Fort Still Apache and Hungarian descent. He comes from long line of artists and important Native Americans. His mother, Marjorie Martinez, was a classically trained singer and his father, Thomas Siklos, is a church choir director and voice teacher. His Shinnecock great-grandfather, Charles Sumner Bunn, was a master wood-carver of shore bird decoys and a professional guide and hunter. His Apache great-grandfather was Chin-Chee, a well known warrior with Geronimo's band who was killed in combat with the U.S. army. His step-great-grandfather was Martine, a U.S. Army Apache Scout who helped persuade Geronimo to surrender in 1886.

Photo by Katrina Lovett

Living on the Shinnecock Reservation and being at the family owned gift shop, David absorbed the history of his heritage. He began by drawing and selling portraits of Indian chiefs, sailing ships and animals.

David gives me a personal tour of the museum's permanent exhibit, A Walk With The People, A 10,000 Year History of Shinnecock. While we stroll around we talk about the outreach into the rest of the community. A recent experience was the first joint effort between the Shinnecock Museum and the Gallery on Jobs Lane that David can recall. It was the Roy Lichtenstein exhibit where the renowned abstract artist painted Native Americans and in Native American patterns. The historic paintings were shown side-by-side with Native history and facts.

Of the Shinnecock Museum's displays for the permanent exhibit, David painted the giant images in careful and loving detail that all at once conveys a folksy, artisan looking glass into the Shinnecock's past. Almost every floor to ceiling painting depicting events in the Native American life on Long Island in a folk style. They are powerful in the sizes and filled with detail that outlines many of the aspects of the Shinnecock People.

Not only has he filled the paintings with life events but a little of the mythos of the Shinnecock is infused into them as well. David explained that the traditional stories of most Native Americans share a common quality.

"The traditional stories emerged from the landscape," he said. "The spiritual identity of the people is associated with location. The creation stories emerged from location."

Only a very few of the Shinnecock are now relearning the traditional ways with the help of other tribes but David's dream for the museum in centered on the creation of the Village.

"A nature trail, plant identification, traditional organic gardens," says David when I asked him what else the village might contain. It will also bring the lost civilization, the East End's first beautiful people back to life for the first time in probably a hundred years.

In a short time the Shinnecock have lost what took almost ten thousand years to build. With some help we can all experience an adventure that lies in a place forever frozen in the records of history.

Much of the construction of the white pine log building was made possible through a donation from the Mashantucket Pequot Nation. In addition, the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services provided the first grant in 1991 and a grant from New York State Council on the Arts made the grant opening possible. The museum receives additional financial support from the Town of Southampton, The American Indian Community House, The Institute of Museum and Library Services National Leadership Program for Museums, Upstate History Alliance and the National Council on the Aging.

In July 2002, the Museum was awarded a three-year grant from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) which was the beginning of the Shinnecock People's journey to bring their Museum up to the professional standards of the museum-going public and to preserve their historic artifacts in proper conditions. The grant is applied toward a three-year project that includes collections and exhibition management and marketing including education programming, tours and workshops for children and adults.

The Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum is the only Native American-owned and operated Museum on Long Island and is a not-for-profit Museum, chartered by the State of New York Board of Regents, incorporated as a 501 (c) (3).

The Museum is located at the corner of Montauk Highway and West Gate Road, on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, Southampton, New York, just two miles west of Southampton Village. Call for appointments, guided tours, group and school tours, fees, donations and other information: 631-287-1923, visit the website www.shinnecockmuseum.org.




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