- The role of the Native American Indian, the indigenous inhabitants of Southampton and the entire North American continent, was poignantly illustrated at a meeting held Tuesday evening, June 10, in the Southampton High School Auditorium as members of the Shinnecock Nation, the Lakota Nation and the Unkechaug Nation gathered to discuss the preservation of their sacred burial sites in the face of ever encroaching development that disregards the cultural significance and importance of these revered places.
The program, composed of speakers from the Shinnecock Nation, the Lakota Nation and the Unkechaug Nation, was sponsored by the Inter-Tribal Historic Preservation Task Force (ITHPTF) as part of their on-going educational effort to gain more widespread support for the preservation of sacred places by heightening public awareness. The ITHPTF would like to see more legislation enacted that would help protect ancient burial grounds, sacred sites of worship and other places of note.
Gordell Wright and Ginew Benton brought the audience to their feet with
their performance of a ceremonial song as Rainbow Hill, Chief Harry B.
Wallace of the Unkechaug Nation, and Rubin Valdez of the Shinnecock
Nation bring the evening's event to a close.
New York State is one of four remaining states in the country that have not enacted grave protection legislation according to Chief Harry B. Wallace of the Unkechaug Nation. "When remains are found, the first phone call is made to the police, who come onto the scene to make sure a homicide was not involved. Then their work is done. There are no procedures in place to protect the site," Wallace said.
The importance and prevalence of sacred burial grounds on the East End of Long Island was highlighted once again earlier this year as the Southampton Town Board moved forward with plans to purchase and protect an identified burial ground on Montauk Highway in Water Mill just east of Bay Avenue. The burial ground was unearthed two years ago as part of a required environmental review that had to be conducted before a proposed development could proceed.
When the remains were unearthed by a team of archaeologists who had been hired by the developer the police and property owners were immediately called. Members of the Shinnecock Nation were also quickly notified. In much the same scenario as that described by Chief Wallace, the police determined there was no homicide involved and the matter was taken over by representatives of the town and the Shinnecock Nation.
The developer agreed to sell the land to the town for $5 million and the town in turn, agreed to use money from its Community Preservation Fund (CPF) to secure the purchase. Ultimately, the burial ground will be returned to the Nation in recognition of its historic significance as a sacred site.
This was not the case on Shelter Island in 2004, when in a similar situation a private property owner who planned to commence construction unearthed a burial site on her property.
"It was a mass grave," Wallace said, "but we could not protect the site. It was more important for this homeowner to build a stable for her horses on that land and that is what happened. It was shameful. We need to come together to prevent that," Wallace said. "The graves of our ancestors were desecrated."
These accounts were echoed by three additional panelists who noted the advent of time, the increase in development on lands across the country and the deterioration of the environment all add to the disregard for the sacred burial grounds of their ancestors.
"We need to protect the land and those buried underneath it," Wallace commented before he held the crowd spellbound with his reading of the words
from an old Chief of another era. "You must teach your children that the ground beneath your feet is the ashes of your ancestors. If men spit on the ground, they spit on themselves," the old Chief wrote.
Rainbow Hill of the Shinnecock Nation welcomed the audience and introduced the panel
of speakers on Tuesday night at the Southampton High School Auditorium.
"America is only a few hundred years old," Vic Camp said. "Our culture was here for thousands of years before others came to this land. We took care of our land. Our earth was beautiful, our water was clean, before white men came here," Camp said as he recalled the history of Turtle Island.
Posh Camp, of the Lakota Nation spoke about the plight of Bear Butte in the Black Hills of South Dakota. "Our sacred sites are constantly under attack," Posh Camp said as he described his tribe's protest of the establishment of the world's largest biker bar in the sacred grounds near Bear Butte.
"A developer wanted to build the world's largest 'Broken Spokes Saloon' on our sacred grounds," Camp said as he told the group about the protest to turn back developers and keep bikers away from their sacred grounds. "We marched through town with 2,500 people in a warrior party to save our lands by protesting the issuance of a liquor license to the bar, but our cry for justice fell on deaf ears in the Spring of 2006. We are still in a fight to get a buffer zone around our sacred mountain."
"They say Southampton Town was founded in 1640," Ruben Valdez of the Shinnecock Nation said, "but let's look at it from our perspective. We think something fell on us," Valdez said as he described the changes in Southampton Town. "The developers mind-set has ruined the East End. There was a time when a man could make a living here by hunting wild birds. Now you can't even get a dozen clams out of the bay," Valdez said sadly, echoing the other speakers reverence for the earth.
"It is very sad to watch this area metropolize from a wilderness grade zone to what it is now," Valdez continued as the crowd listened in hushed silence. "It was gradual at first, but now it's like a cannon ball. Our town is encumbered by a second home industry that has made everything about status and investment. Millions of dollars flash across the table and our sacred graves are easily forgotten."
The meeting ended with ceremonial songs that enthralled the gathering and set a tone of reverence for the natural order of the earth, sea and sky. "The earth is our mother," Vic Camp said, "we must respect it and honor it. What will happen when there is no water to drink and the air is so dirty you can't breathe'"