A Debt Owed
Troge told the Daily Poster that economic development is part of a debt owed to the Shinnecock. Currently, economic development projects like the billboard account for 30 percent of the tribal government’s budget.
In the 400 years since they encountered settlers, the Shinnecock have faced genocide — outright enslavement and indentured servitude, decimation from foreign diseases like smallpox, forced assimilation through though Indian schools like the notorious Thomas Indian School of Eerie, New York and the Carlisle Indian School. That legacy of violence continues today through not only economic neglect, but continued encroachment and cultural desecration.
In 2018, a construction crew unearthed an ancient burial site while digging a foundation for a new development in the Shinnecock Hills, complete with skeletal remains and artifacts. While the Shinnecock long for their ancestors’ graves to be left in peace, there was little they could do to prevent the excavation, and the remains were removed from the site.
In September, the Southampton town board, after months of protest from tribal members, unanimously adopted the Graves Protection Act and placed a moratorium on construction in parts of the Shinnecock Hills. The move earned praise from Shinnecock Nation Chairman Bryan Polite who said it marked “a new brighter chapter in the three-hundred-and-eighty-year relationship between the Town of Southampton and the Shinnecock Nation.”
In our correspondence, Schneiderman called the act “landmark legislation.” But Rebecca Genia, a longtime Shinnecock activist and member of the Warriors, said the town’s actions were “watered-down” and took way too much work.
“For decades, we’ve been pleading with them to adopt these laws and keep the bulldozers out of our sacred hills,” she said, explaining that the the moratorium came “finally with more pressure, more public people, more allies coming together to email the town board, to call them to text them, to have personal conversations with them. We had a demonstration in January of 2020. It was freezing cold out there but 150 people showed up to stop the desecration of the Shinnecock Hills.”
Genia expressed doubt that much will change even with the moratorium in place. She noted that despite the protesters’ efforts, one home was still allowed to be constructed.
Troge said that the construction in the Hills has not stopped even now.
“They keep building. It’s horrible. It’s horrible to watch,” she said. “We’ve actively been there watching as they’re taking our ancestors’ skulls out of the ground.”
Troge said a justification often given for removal is that the remains could be from victims of MS-13 related gang violence. She said the desecrations are alarmingly common and necessitate “repatriation ceremonies” wherein the Nation repossesses the remains that have been removed, and buries them as close as possible to their original resting places. According to Genia, in the previous year alone, the Shinnecock have conducted over one hundred such ceremonies.
“I can’t explain the toll that it takes on you,” Troge added, describing having been in attendance.
The largest gravesite desecration happened in 1891 with the construction of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club — the same Club that hosted the 2018 U.S. Open, an event from which the Shinnecock did not benefit financially except for being allowed to charge visitors for parking on their land. Untold numbers of gravesites were excavated during construction of the course. As there were no protocols for dealing with ancient remains, Genia explained, many of the bones ended up in trash cans, in people’s attics, or were swept into the golf course’s bunkers.
“These billionaires build their mansions on stolen land,” Genia said, “and play golf on our cemeteries.”