Shinnecock Nation ratifies first constitution

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Amid a bitter tribal leadership rift, the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Tuesday said it voted to ratify its first tribal constitution.

According to a brief statement from the tribe Tuesday night, the constitution passed by a vote of 112 to 59, with three abstentions. The tribe has more than 300 eligible voters. Only tribal members living on the reservation were allowed to vote on the constitution, which goes into effect in 30 days.

The constitution calls for a new seven-member "council of trustees" to replace the current three, according to a copy of the document shown to Newsday. In addition to the existing post of chairman, it consists of a vice chairman, treasurer and general council secretary.

Challenges to the new constitution are expected, according to tribal members.

Pointing to the total number of tribal members, including a majority who live off the reservation and were not eligible to vote, one longtime member who asked not to be identified, said, "We have 1,500 tribal members -- there's something wrong with this picture."

Even among those eligible, he said, the "yes" vote didn't constitute a majority or a ringing endorsement. He said a formal objection to the vote and the constitution will soon be filed with the U.S. Department of the Interior.

According to a letter sent to tribal members with copies of the constitution, shown to Newsday, the constitution is a "foundation document from which to draw upon when needed, a foundation that will help to create more efficiency and accountability."

A tribal source said copies of the constitution were delivered door to door at the Southampton reservation this week.

It's the first time in the tribe's history that it has proclaimed to have a formal constitution laying out its governing laws. Previously, the governing laws have been a succession of resolutions compiled over centuries.

Years in the making, the constitution comes amid a deep rift in the tribe as two rosters of leaders lay claim to the top tribal offices. Last year, trustees Lance Gumbs and Gordell Wright were ousted from their posts amid allegations they pursued economic development proposals, including some with casino ties, without full tribal authorization. A roster of three interim trustees was appointed to take their places.

Gumbs and Wright have consistently denied the allegations of any wrongdoing, saying the attempted ouster was part of a coup orchestrated by the tribe's casino development firm, Gateway Casino Resorts, to remove them from power. They have challenged the procedures that removed them, and questioned the independence of the panel that conducted an investigation into their activities.

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