- The past and the present converged as representatives of the Shinnecock Nation met with town officials this week to discuss the purchase of a sacred burial ground located south of the highway in Water Mill where "earthly remains," including a 1,000-year-old skull were found on the site which was once slated for subdivision.
The town expressed intentions to purchase the long recognized archaeologically significant lots to safeguard the burial grounds with resources from its Community Preservation Fund (CPF). Introduced by CPF Attorney Mary Wilson
, who oversees acquisitions for the town, the proposal was the subject of a public hearing held Tuesday afternoon.
The nine-acre property is comprised of three separate parcels located at 1361 Montauk Highway in Water Mill and is owned by real estate developer John Konner. A resident of Southampton, Konner has set a $5 million purchase price on the property.
The hearing, a standard component of the acquisition process, was extraordinary in regard to historic context as representatives from the Shinnecock Nation appeared before the board to support the purchase, which from their perspective was more of a give back than a land buy.
The "earthly remains" wrapped for transport to the county medical examiner's office.
Photo by Beverly Jensen
"Life in Southampton did not begin in 1640," Rebecca Genia commented as she addressed the board advocating the purchase. Concurring with that sentiment, Lisa Votino-Tarrant commented, "My husband's ancestors were here long before your arrival. We know that we can't go back in time and we know that we can't stop development, but we urge you to purchase this land. These graves are sacred."
Noting that preservation doesn't come cheap, Votino-Tarrant said she urged the board to create "good Kharma" by moving forward with the purchase in which "One acre of land is worth $1 million."
It was the pervasive trend toward corralling development and preserving open space that inadvertently led to the unearthing of the ancient remains in 2006. The site, according to historian John Strong, who also appeared at the hearing to support the purchase, has been known as a significant Indian Burial Ground since the 1970s.
"This parcel has all the elements of a classic Indian burial site," Strong said as he pointed to the aerial photographs of the site tacked to the wall. The property was targeted by the town as an archaeologically significant site more than 10 years ago - long before the prospect of subdividing the parcel came under town review.
According to Konner, who purchased the property from a previous owner in 1998, the parcel went through phase one of the archaeological review process based on the site's suspected importance. When significant artifacts were found during the initial phase, the applicants were compelled by town regulations to move forward with phase two of the site excavation which resulted in yet even more significant findings on the site, compelling archaeologists and town officials to move forward with phase three of the site examination process.
Following the unearthing of remains on the site in November 2006 identified by medical examiners as dating over 1,000 years ago, skilled workers proceeded on to phase three.
An aerial view of the nine pacrel site (center to right of the southerly
roadway) in Water Mill.
It was a day to remember as site excavators unearthed the most significant portion of the remains to date, namely that of a skull, according to Archaeologist Joann McClean who was supervising the excavation when the find was made.
"McClean called me right away at my office," Konner recalled as he described the torrent of media attention that resulted. Representatives of the Shinnecock Nation were notified along with police, homicide and Crime Scene Investigators (CSI
) personnel - all of whom converged on the scene.
The Coroner's Office, once satisfied that there was no foul play involved, proceeded to date the skull, surmising it was 1,000 years old. Related remains were left at the burial site undisturbed. Preserved in its natural state and kept in safekeeping at the Brockett Funeral Home in Southampton, the significant skeletal feature will be returned to it's original resting place under the town's direction.
In addition to alerting the press, representatives of the Shinnecock Nation also called their lawyer, well-known local attorney George Stankevich, to conduct the heavily attended press conference on Konner's front lawn, fielding questions from local, national and international news media.
In addition, members of the Shinnecock tribe "spent the night there after the find. They had a ceremony. That was fine with me," Konner said.
"Mr. Konner is an applaudable person," Rubin Valdez, of the Shinnecock Nation, commented Tuesday. The Nation's respect for Konner was also highlighted by Dave Martin
, the director of the Shinnecock Nation's Cultural Museum who also favors the land acquisition. "The town has a willing seller in Mr. Konner," Valdez commented. "If the town buys this land it is a gift back to ourselves. It would be quite a feather in the cap of the town."
Anthony "Tony" Ernst of Southampton also supported the proposed purchase presenting a letter signed by other local residents who also backed the planned CPF acquisition.
"We would not bulldoze our ancestors' graves" Ernst said as he noted the need for preservation and respect for Southampton's history and heritage.
Property owner John Konner, of Konner Development, is willing
to move forward with plans to sell the nine-acre site, where the
now well documented Indian Burial Ground is located, to the town.
Photo by Andrea Aurichio
McClean, the archaeologist who found the skull portion of the remains, encouraged the town to continue with efforts to excavate the site. "Some of the finds are at Stony Brook," McClean said, and others are with a New York City
based archaeological firm. "I am not looking for work for myself," McClean said, "but this is a rich field that should be explored. We can learn from this."
Stankevitch advocated the creation of a more systematic way of handling archaeologically significant finds on construction sites that would not necessarily halt or deter development.
"You need a policy," Stankevitch suggested, "every time someone finds remains on a site it's like a Chinese fire drill. No one knows what to do."
And then, things came full circle as attention was directed back to the earth and Native Americans' relationship to their environment, nature and the sacred earth.
"I can speak because I am an elder," the diminutive and astonishingly youthful Mary Smith
Thunderbird Hale said with great dignity befitting an elder. "Our concern is for our ancestors. We have no traditional ceremonies for reburial because when we buried our people they stayed buried.
"You didn't plant in the hills," Hale explained, "the animals roamed there. You buried your people in the hills, so they could face the ocean. We want our ancestors to remain undisturbed."
Hale will serve as the official liaison between the Shinnecock Nation and the Southampton Town Board as the archaeologically sensitive program moves forward. The matter, now tabled, will be rescheduled for a vote at an upcoming town board meeting. The public hearing was closed and a 10-day written comment period will follow.