- Step away from the rushing and hustle of the holiday season and take the family over to the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum. Built in 2001, the museum is a place where you can go back to a time when Native Americans up and down the East Coast cultivated a thriving culture that dates back 10,000 years. That spirit is still very much alive today in Elizabeth Thunderbird Haile, an elder of the Shinnecock Nation, who welcomed all guests with open arms and was eager to teach her cultural heritage.
David Williams reviews the sculpture exhibition.
The annual Winter Festival was a chance for the Hamptons community to learn a bit, shop a bit at the museum, and yes, even visit Santa. Haile met visitors with a "welcome to another country" and explained to parents and children alike that the Shinnecock Reservation is a country unto itself with its own laws - though she laughed, "none of them are written down."
She explained the new exhibit, "People of the Shore: The Maritime History of the Place of Shells" highlighting wampum in particular. Most people learn from history books that wampum is Indian money, however it is so much more as you'll learn in the exhibit. Haile explained that wampum is created from the purple and white parts of an oyster shell formed into tiny beads. These beads are strung together to form belts and bracelets that tell a story, signify a contract, or tell the history of a person or group. They are very personal sources of pride and are much more than money in the traditional sense.
"I am continually impressed," Haile said, "by the contribution indigenous people have made to the maritime history of this country, and how many of the skills these people developed are still in practice today that are still so useful and important." She further relayed, "That this is a wonderful opportunity to see modern arts and crafts and ancient arts and crafts mesh together for such practical purposes."
Bronze sculpture as part of Dave McGary's
"My Spirit Dances Forever" collection
on permanent exhibition at the museum.
There was much to learn and explore in the museum and as the vendors were setting up visitors were drawn to the lower level of the museum by the delicious smells of the native foods being created. Fry bread, wasamp or samp made from soaked cracked white corn, and succotach, which is more of a soup made with cranberry beans and corn, oyster stew, clam chowder and clam pie, as well as cupcakes and cookies were being served under the watchful eye of Shelly Moore.
Moore explained that, "each tribe has its own way of making fry bread" and that those "traditions have been passed down" for years within the tribe. The popular fry bread is "created from commodities like sugar and flour and it is served at festivals and Pow Wows. [It's] similar to funnel cake and it's funny because at Pow Wows children will say, 'funnel cake' and we tell then, 'no, it's fry bread.' It travels well and is made from flour that is pounded down from corn meal." This mixture forms soft dough and is fried in shortening, as it cools many people sprinkle on powdered sugar or dab a bit of preserves to add sweetness. More than a few a few festival goers were seem leaving with stacks of fry bread in addition to the arts and crafts for sale on the main floor.
When it comes to the Winter Festival, Florence Edheridge, who helps with the Senior Center on the Reservation said, she's been "doing the festival for the past five years it's a nice gathering to have children learn" about Indian culture.
Shinnecock Elder Elizabeth Thunderbird Haile.
Andrea Godoy, Programming and Development Director for the museum remarked, "We do this event every year and one nice feature of this year is that we are opening our first changing exhibit at the museum featuring the maritime history of the Shinnecock people of Eastern Long Island. So we have a lot going on this weekend." At the festival Godoy says, "A lot of local vendors come in and sell arts and crafts and it is completely free for families. It's a nice way to invite non-Indian people in the community to the Reservation to share in our culture and share in the holidays."
In the lower level Godoy was busy overseeing the Kidszone where children could get hands on with Native American crafts by making beaded necklaces. Children were also invited to learn about prominent figures in Indian history as they participated in a scavenger hunt using the bronze sculptures of Dave McGary's "My Spirit Dances Forever" collection, on permanent display at the museum.
David Bunn Martine, the soft-spoken Director and Curator at the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum, was on hand to discuss the Shinnecock history depicted in the murals, which he had created, as well as the sculptures and photographs which line the walls. He was most happy to discuss the new exhibit that he says has, "Been a year in planning with three major themes. First is the wampum manufacture, made from the clamshell beads. The other is our whaling history that is from the colonial time to the mid-19th century. The last is our ancient fishing and shellfish harvesting and our interaction with the colonists."
Andrea Godoy, Educational Director, distributed prizes to
children after the Scavenger Hunt in the Kidszone.
"It's mentioned in the text of the exhibition," says Martine, "That the Baymen continued a lot of the fishing techniques that were learned from our ancestors and they continued through the 1980s and early 1990s. The exhibit has a lot of detail and things that people can learn that they haven't seen before." The exhibit is the first at the museum that has been printed on canvas panels. "We hope," he continued," to do a lot more programs and themes of the Shinnecock people in this manner" at the museum.
From the outside the museum may appear small, however as you enter the beautifully carved door (carved by an artist from Wisconsin) the space is rather large and will, as Martine envisions, soon fill up. "There's an enormous amount of documentary material that we can draw on. We also have a lot of archival photos of the elders of the Tribe. We have a pretty big collection in storage."
In particular, David Williams, found a photograph of the "Old Shinnecock School" that he had attended, among photographs of his grandmother and great-grandmother. He stated "That this is an important exhibit for the Shinnecock people and all should come and study it."
That said as visitors meander through the museum they can take note of the permanent exhibit, "A Walk With The People" which is a mural tour that encompasses all six major periods of the Shinnecock tribe, from the Neolithic to the present.
Vendor Marcey Tree in The Wind of Turtle 2 Turtle displayed her
Of particular pride to Martine is the "first tribute to whalers and whaling tradition" shown in photographs on the walls of the lower level. Each portrait is of one of the people who died in a shipwreck off the shore near Mecox.
Commenting that with the recent cutbacks in New York State Cultural funding and the current national economic difficulties, Martine stated, "It is tough as we are a non-profit museum, and rely on grants and donations. We are hoping to open a new exhibit - a living history village - similar to that of the Wampanoag tribe at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts" he expressed his hope that with the new administration the federal government will reduce some of the cultural funding and cutbacks which have had a detrimental effect on non-profit cultural organizations.
Elaborating that, "The pie slices seem to be getting smaller and smaller" Martine reiterated that the response from the East End community to the Shinnecock Museum has "been tremendous" stating that the museum, "Has worked closely with other museums and Indian Nations around the northeast in particular, such as the Seneca Nation and the Narragansett Nation as well as others in Connecticut." He is hopeful that these collaborations will continue to bring recognition to the historical and artistic contributions made by all Indian nations to the United States.
Shelly Moore, Dolores Long, Florence Edheridge, and Evelyn Garrett keep an eye on the food preparations.
• The Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum is located at Route 27A and West Gate Road in Southampton, 631-287-4923, www.shinnecockmuseum.org.
Nicole, an award-winning journalist, is Executive Editor & Publisher of Hamptons.com where she focuses on celebrity interviews, fine living and design, social events, fashion and beauty. She lives on the North Fork with her husband, their two daughters, and Bernese Mountain dog, Cooper. www.hamptons.com