It begins with theft, systemic dispossession, treaties, and conquest: the stroke of a pen determines one, two, three, four centuries of physical and economic violence. It begins with impudence, hierarchies of human beings, colonial expansion: the stroke of a pen determines the sale of humans, liberal compromise, the production of unending property, and centuries of uneven development.
American mythologies are etched in bronze across every city and town touched by the republic. Much like the Greeks, we built sculptures and statues dedicated to our political leaders and hallmarks of democracy: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The power of this symbolism hides the historical underpinnings of our social and spatial foundations. An empire was built on anti-Black and anti-Native rhetoric and policy and remains at the heart of its prosperity.
Last year, many citizens of the United States, Canada, and other nations made attempts to reckon with the sordid history of white supremacy, the institutions that uphold it, as well as some of the foundational myths that undergird how we understand this country. Popular imagination is shifting, and with it increased national attention to racial disparities and historic injustices against people of color. While the effects remain to be seen, many organizers across the country, and the global community, are making advances to achieve sovereignty and liberation, repair and repatriation, to redress hundreds of years of racism manifested through federal law.
For this edition of the Ujima WIRE, we had the honor of speaking with Tela Troge, a lawyer and member of the Shinnecock nation about one such advance.
Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation have been pushing the town of Southampton, NY to buy a property located in the tribe’s ancient burial ground. Leaders described Sugar Loaf Hill as one of the most spiritual and historically significant Native American sites in New York, with the buried ancestors dating back almost 3,000 years. This fight is just one of a litany of struggles at the local, state, and federal levels against threats to their sovereignty.
“In growing up, we were taught that that place is a sacred place. All of the Shinnecock Hills are and that is especially sacred,” said Denise Silva-Dennis, a retired Shinnecock teacher. “It is the heart of our reservation. That is where our people are buried.”
Today there are 574 Federally recognized Native tribes and over 5 million people who self-identify as Indigenous Americans. In Massachusetts, there are two federally recognized tribes, and about seven tribes total. However, federal recognition and census counts do not tell the whole story.
“Federal recognition means you have a government-to-government relationship. What you see in the Northeast are treaties that predate the creation of the U.S. — verbal treaties. The United States didn’t exist in the beginning,” says Tela Troge, a lawyer and member of Nipmuc and Shinnecock descent. Troge has been fighting alongside her community members to counter landgrabs and create sustainability for her community. Adjacent to what’s known today as Southampton, NY is the Shinnecock Indian Nation, whose sovereign land is currently occupied by some of the country’s most wealthy and powerful.
“These lands […] were stolen — literally stolen in 1859,” said Shane Weeks, a co-chairman of the tribe’s Graves Protection Warriors Society, to the East Hampton Star.
Alongside other nations, like the Nipmuc Nation and Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, federal recognition has been a decades-long struggle for Shinnecock people. Under American law, Native nations are sovereigns with a direct relationship with the federal government. However, the relationship between the U.S. and Native nations during and beyond the federal recognition process remains fraught, subjecting members and leaders to often arbitrary and racist methods of proving their lineage and existence.
An article written by Sarah Krakoff for the Standford Law Review explains further, “Since the arrival of Europeans, American Indian tribal formation has been a distinctly political process, one that also reflects the ways that U.S. laws and policies imposed racial characteristics on American Indian individuals and tribes. To the extent that tribes today have membership requirements that include lineage or blood quantum, they are part and parcel of that process of racial/political formation. The federal government catalogued tribes, defining them and imposing membership requirements at key historical moments, as part of a strategy of control and elimination. The process of bureaucratizing tribes and their members […] comprised a racializing project aimed at eventually defining Indians out of existence.”
The Shinnecock Nation identifies itself as triracial and Troge recounts the moments of “incredible racism” they faced at the state and federal levels due to the mixed-race heritage of many members. “We know who we are because generations and generations before us have told us who we are,” says Troge.
“It’s been a struggle to get New York state to recognize our sovereignty,” says Troge. The Shinnecock Nation has faced what she calls “economic genocide.” Attempts to create alternative streams of revenue, like billboards along a highway that illegally bisect their land, have been met with legal action. She says this keeps their community in artificial poverty. The Shinnecock Nation says that as an Indigenous people they have aboriginal title to the land. “The monument signs were critical for us to create very, very badly needed social services to our children, and to our elders, and our whole tribal community,” she explained.
“It goes back to the Non-Intercourse Act. It wasn’t just about [the] alienation of land. The Non-intercourse Act was also about freedom of trade. That’s what they’ve tried to [stop], it was all about dominance of trade from the start,” she explained. “The Shinnecock Nation was producing what’s called wampum, which was used as the first currency in this country. Then we saw the early colonial industry of whaling, and that created a lot of wealth in New England and throughout the northeast coast. These were things that we excelled at. We excelled at making wampum, we excelled at whaling. When they saw us becoming wealthy they attacked that, and created systems of disenfranchisement and dispossession.”
“We’re living out here in the Hamptons, but severely impoverished and living in communities that we shouldn’t be living in. But we have this relationship with New York state where every time we engage in economic development, no matter what it is, they try to sue us, [or] they try to shut it down. We call it economic genocide because they have completely degraded our environment,” says Troge.
Haley Albano, who covered the issue in a 2019 article covering the issue, writes, “The legal right to self-determination is critical for Shinnecock Nation, who have been forced to defend their surroundings and who have frequently been the victims of dislocation and forced migration in various periods of both historical and contemporary time. After the experiences of brutal Indian termination policies, essential Native American rights were acknowledged and granted by the government, including the right to determine the future of what it means to be Native and transfer Native knowledge and heritage to future generations. Halting economic activity restricts community life and contributes [to] the erasure of Native People from rightful lands.”
Still, the community has continued to fight. The Southampton Town Board unanimously passed a graves protection act in September 2020, reported the Sag Harbor Express, “becoming the first municipality in New York State to establish protocols for what must be done if human remains are found on private property.” Currently, there are no state laws that govern the protection of graves and burial grounds, making New York one of four states which do not have such a law on the books.
Yesterday, the Shinnecock Nation Graves Protection Warrior Society and the nation at large celebrated the return of their burial ground at Sugar Loaf Hill.
“[T]he Peconic Land Trust had closed on the $5.6 million purchase of the 4.5-acre parcel in Shinnecock Hills from the Nappa family,” reported the Southampton Press.
“We created a new mechanism so the land can ultimately be repatriated back to us,” said Troge, “The town will purchase it, but then it will become inalienable. We had to figure out a creative way [to do it]. We’ll be deconstructing the mansion that’s on it. I hope that it can change the ways people think about dismantling capitalism in the wealthiest town in America.”
“Part of sovereignty is self-determination. As a sovereign nation, we have the right and responsibility, and obligation to our people to take care of each other. Water back. Land back. Respect our cultural sites. Respect our sacred sites. It’s really simple. It’s nothing radical at all, you know?”