- The Shinnecock Nation moved closer to economic security and social progress when a long awaited settlement that could lead to federal recognition of tribal status by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC was reached this week in a courtroom on Long Island after more than three decades of legal maneuvering.
The Shinnecock Indian reservation spans some 800 acreas in Southampton is home to approximately 600 members of the tribe which numbers 1300. Aerial images courtesy of Google Earth
The ruling, viewed as long overdue by the Shinnecock Nation, one of the country's oldest tribes, is expected to pave the way
for the establishment of a casino in eastern Suffolk County by mid-2010. However the long battle for the nation to reclaim their rightful status as a tribe from the federal government means more to the Nation than securing their rights to establish a gaming facility on their lands or at another location within commuting distance of the Shinnecock Hills. The casino and full scale gaming and recreational facility is expected to bring unprecedented economic opportunity to the tribe where many still live in marginal economic circumstances.
Tribal status will make it possible for the Nation to become eligible for more federal aid for education, housing and medical facilities that are needed to serve the population. The ruling is also a symbolic victory for the Nation to regain tribal status that they claim has been wrongfully denied them for years.
This week's ruling, handed down by Federal Court Judge Joseph Bianco in his Central Islip courtroom, puts an end to further delays by stipulating the Bureau of Indian Affairs must issue its findings on tribal status by Dec. 15, 2009. A favorable ruling and restoration of tribal status is expected to pave the way for the Shinnecocks to move forward quickly with plans to establish a casino as well as improve life on the Reservation.
The Shinnecock Nation is one of the oldest documented tribes in the country. In Southampton Town the Nation's presence has been clearly established in motifs depicting the Indians waiting on the shores of the Atlantic
as the colonists approached to settle what became Southampton Town on Indian land. Burial grounds and remains are still found as developers dig into the earth to create more housing . And sometimes the entire project is halted by archeologists who find remains as was a case a few years ago when construction was stopped on a subdivision on Montauk Highway in Water Mill after a significant burial ground was unearthed. The developer graciously backed off and made plans to work with the town to preserve the burial ground and honor the sacred ancestors of the Nation's tribe. Tribal members performed sacred rites on the land in tribute to their ancestors.
The Shinnecocks' quest to reclaim their status as a tribe dates back to the late 1940s, beginning long before gaming became prevalent on Indian lands. The battle has been a long and arduous struggle to regain what was, in many estimates, wrongfully denied the tribe as witnessed by the court proceedings over the last 30 years.
Commerce is brisk at the tax-free shops that front the roadway.
The Nation contends the tribe was wrongfully removed from the federal register in the 1940s and has been subsequently denied their rights as a tribe repeatedly in actions taken by the federal government ever since.
In 2007, a court ruling barred the Shinnecocks from establishing a gaming facility on Indian lands in Hampton Bays when Judge Bianco ruled against the tribe in a lawsuit initiated by Southampton Town seeking to prevent the Shinnecocks from establishing a casino on 80 acres of Indian land in Hampton Bays known as Westwoods. Bianco noted the site could not be considered tribal lands because the Nation lacked tribal status which is granted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In a previous ruling on the same case handed down in 2003, Judge Thomas C. Platt granted the Shinnecocks federal recognition as a tribe. Platt's ruling was ignored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Nation was stalled again by the legal system.
The 80 acres known as Westwoods just north of the Shinnecock Canal were eyed for a potential casino site until clearing of the land was halted by court order as national recognition still hangs in the balance.
In 2001, the Shinnecocks tried to move forward with their plans when they cleared land on their Westwoods site in Hampton Bays hoping to build a casino. The work was quickly halted by a lawsuit filed against the Nation by Southampton Town.
The project became controversial as local residents, alarmed by the prospect of a large scale gambling casino in Hampton Bays, turned out in force to protest.
In 2006, the Shinnecocks filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs claiming the Bureau was engaged in an on-going practice of treating the Tribe unfairly by routinely obstructing and delaying their request for a rightful restoration of their tribal status dating back to the 1970s.
The legal battle for tribal status revoked in the 1940s intensified in 1976 when the Federal Gaming Regulatory Act was adopted. The law made it possible for tribes to establish casinos on their lands. The success of Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun, well-known Indian gaming facilities in nearby Connecticut, provided the economic stimulus and encouragement for other tribes in the Northeast to follow suit. Many residents of eastern Long Island depart daily on a high speed passenger ferry leaving Orient Point headed for the New London coastline, a short 40 minute cruise that takes them to a waiting bus that transports gamblers and their Long Island dollars to Connecticut.
The Shinnecocks would like to keep this money circulating in the Long Island economy by ultimately establishing a facility in the area. Earlier this year, members of the Suffolk County Legislature joined forces with the Nation to help search for a suitable location for a gaming facility, preferably close to the Reservation so tribal members would have easy access to jobs
Carver Vernon Chrisjohn makes a bow at his booth at the 62nd Annual Powwow last year. Photo by Kelly Carroll
Proponents of Indian gaming facilities point to the economic prosperity these establishments bring to both their tribal sponsors and the surrounding community.
Leaders of the Shinnecock Nation - many of whom attended the Inauguration of President Barack Obama
in January - expressed optimism as they moved forward to the next round of courtroom battles, having made contact with leaders in the Obama Administration who seemed sympathetic to their plight. "They knew about it," Tribal representative Lance Gumbs said when he returned from DC. "They read the information and they were up on things."
"Our more than 30 year quest for federal recognition is finally within our grasp," Tribal Trustee Randy King said in a statement released after the latest ruling this week.