An Algonquian tribe dwelling on the southern shores of
eastern Long Island, the Shinnecocks -- the People of the Stony Shore -- extend
back into the mists of time. While anthropologists will say that these Indians
came into their tribal lands as ancient caribou hunters, their creation story
holds that their arrival was preceded by that of a goddess who descended from
the back of a Great Turtle and caused the earth to form under her feet. From
her came the deer, bear and wolf that ranged through the land, the birds that
soared in the sky, and the fish and mollusks that filled the ponds and bays. It
was then that brought her children, the Shinnecock People, into the garden
created for them.
They are still here, seemingly as old as a time that’s been
measured in the course of eternal moons and seasons, in the stories passed down
from generation to generation, and by the daily lives of a people who have
traditionally lived in harmony with the land and the waters surrounding them.
Especially the waters.
As coastal dwellers, the Shinnecock were sustained by the bounty of the sea
that for thousands of years provided the bulk of their diet as well as shells
from which their beadwork (a beadwork so highly valued in trade that examples
of it have been found in anthropological sites as far west as the Rockies) was
crafted. But more than just fishermen and the gatherers of mollusks, the
Shinnecocks were accomplished whalers – and plunged their dugout canoes into the
Atlantic in search of the leviathan long before the 19th-century
arrival of great whaling ships, on which they also served.
As has been the story with other native peoples, the Shinnecock suffered a
decline as a consequence of the new infectious diseases introduced into their
population by European colonists. Thereafter, their communities were further
disrupted encroachment into their territory by Dutch, and later English
colonists. Moreover, many Shinnecock joined with New York’s Brothertown Indians
to the detriment of their distinct community identity, while others
intermarried with local colonists.
In December 1876, a seminal event occurred
when ten Shinnecock men died while trying to save a ship stranded off East
Hampton. While this might be thought typical of a tribe that had become famous
in local lore for its heroism and seafaring prowess (at the start of the 20th century, the Shinnecock
were often described as "daring seamen," who furnished recruits to
the U.S. Life Saving Service), other sources mark this event as precipitating a
period for the tribe during which much was lost in terms of the tribe’s
customs, language, young men and aboriginal character.
Fortunately however, something significant has also been attained.
Traditionally, decisions concerning the welfare of the tribe were made by a consensus of adult male members. In 1703, a leasehold was established for tribal members in Southhampton. Seeking to shortcut the consensus process in order to more easily facilitate the "outright theft of Shinnecock Indian lands" (as claimed by the tribe's website, http://www.shinnecocknation.com/ ), in 1792, the State of New York passed a law reorganizing the Shinnecock Indian tribe as a trusteeship. That arrangement lasted right up until April of 2007, when the Shinnecock were finally able to exercise their sovereign right as an ancient Indian Nation and return to holding leadership elections as home. In the autumn of 2010 -- and following a 30 year court battle -- the Shinnecock were recognized by the U.S. government and attained a national reservation.