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Shinnecock Nation's $9M federal grant 'a game changer,' leader says

Bryan Polite, chairman of the Shinnecock Nation's tribal

Bryan Polite, chairman of the Shinnecock Nation's tribal trustees, said the tribe has created a committee to study tribal needs and to determine how best to spend the $9 million federal grant. Credit: James Carbone

The Shinnecock Indian Nation will receive a federal grant of more than $9 million as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to help American Indian tribes affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, a tribal leader said Friday.

Bryan Polite, chairman of the Shinnecock Nation’s tribal trustees, said the nation was notified of the award this week. It’s the first and largest portion of the federal grant under Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. A second that could be two-thirds less is pending, he said.

The $9 million alone is the largest grant the Shinnecock Nation has received and "absolutely a game changer" in terms of its ability to help build up tribal technology, governmental and emergency infrastructure on the 700-acre Southampton reservation, Polite said. Stimulus funds under the prior administration's CARES Act amounted to around $2.4 million, he said.

The tribe has already created an advisory committee to study tribal needs and poll community members to determine how best to spend the money, some of which has a must-use date of 2026.

Funding to boost economic initiatives

Polite said early projects being contemplated include wider broadband connectivity on the reservation, tribal government infrastructure and security, and continued funding for assistance programs, including utilities and food, begun with CARES Act funding. Already, school-age tribal children were given laptop computers for at-home learning during the lockdowns.

"I think it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to really better the community and our ability to provide services and mitigate losses from any future pandemics," Polite said Friday.

It can also be used to mitigate past losses, including the tribal government’s decision last year to shut down its annual powwow to outside visitors. The powwow is one of the major drivers of governmental income, as well as vital income for individual tribal members. Polite said the tribe hasn't yet decided about holding the 2021 powwow, but said he's eager to do "something in person." The one held in 2020 was mostly virtual.

The tribe had previously planned to use CARES Act funding to build an emergency relief center on the reservation, but did not make a deadline to begin construction. Polite said it’s likely to be built with the latest round of funding.

Meanwhile, the tribe continues to move forward with its own economic initiatives. It has begun work on a cannabis cultivation facility on a former waste site on the reservation. Most of the work thus far has involved rehabilitating the site, but construction will start soon. The cultivation center could be complete by summer and producing medical marijuana by the fall, Polite said. The Shinnecocks have also begun work on a cannabis dispensary and wellness center on Montauk Highway.

The tribe also is beginning to review internal regulations for recreational marijuana and expects to complete them this summer, if tribal members agree to move forward, Polite said.

"We’re in the middle of going over it with the community," he said. "We’re planning for a vote this summer."

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