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From the archives: Ruling didn't change the way Shinnecocks embraced their sense of self

Shinnecocks Mabel and Eugene Cuffee with a photo

Shinnecocks Mabel and Eugene Cuffee with a photo album of their ancestors. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

This story was originally published in Newsday on Nov. 13, 2005

As a girl growing up on the Shinnecock Indian reservation, Mabel Cuffee learned to savor Sundays.

That was the day her father, Charles Kellis Smith, would take his children on walks through the Southampton woods. Along the way, he pointed out fox holes and poisonous plants. He showed them how to look for indentations in the sides of trees where rainwater collects - a good place to wait for a deer.

Cuffee, now 48, grew up eating succotash, clam pie and fried bread, recipes that traveled from mother to daughter for generations.

Now, she and her husband, Eugene Cuffee, 55, do the same for their three girls and three boys, who range in age from 26 to 7.

The Cuffees don't need anyone to tell them who they are. They're Shinnecock Indians, just as their parents and their grandparents were before them.

On Monday, a federal judge declared the Shinnecocks a bona fide Indian tribe. Until then, the tribe - which counts about 500 members on its 800-acre reservation - had been recognized by New York State but never by the federal government.

Although the ruling may give the tribe a boost toward achieving its goals - such as building a casino or winning a pending land-claim lawsuit - the reaction within the tribe has been complex, the Cuffees say.

Among themselves since the judge's ruling, tribal members often acknowledge the news with a joke. A friend walked up to Eugene Cuffee the other day and shook his hand. "Congratulations," the friend said. "You're a Shinnecock."

"All these years, I thought I was a Mexican!" Eugene Cuffee quipped back.

In her interactions with outsiders, however, even a "Congratulations" makes Mabel Cuffee bristle. All week, customers in the tobacco shop on the reservation where she works have been offering their good wishes.

But "I'm taking that as, 'Congratulations, you're recognized, you're real.' Because of that?" she said, referring to the judge's decision. "This is who we are and this is who we've always been."

Family is a good place to start when it comes to discussions about Shinnecock identity. Children learn about tribal history and customs through their elders. And family - one's genealogy - is also part of what counts if a tribe wants to gain federal recognition, a status that makes it eligible for federal funding, services and special privileges, such as operating a casino. One of the principal tests for federal recognition is whether modern-day members can trace their roots back to early tribal membership lists.

The Cuffees, then, are a good place to start when it comes to discussions about Shinnecock genealogy. Many of today's Shinnecocks can trace their roots back to Paul Cuffee, a Presbyterian minister who preached to Long Island's Indian communities in the 18th century. Eugene and Mabel Cuffee are both direct descendants of the Shinnecock minister.

Eugene Cuffee, who works for the Southampton Town highway department, keeps reprints of some of his ancestors' photos in two black binders, which sit on his coffee table. Some of them date to the 1860s and were printed on tin. He has memorized all of his relatives' vital statistics - when they were born, when they died, who they married.

On the reservation, it's hard to say where one family begins and another ends. The names Cuffee, Eleazer, Kellis and Bunn are embroidered into nearly every family tree, appearing as surnames or middle names or maiden names across the reservation.

"We're all family and we take care of one another," Eugene Cuffee said.

Families also stick together. That's why Eugene Cuffee says he backs the tribe in its quest to open a casino, even though he's personally opposed to the idea.

"I'm going along that way because that's what the tribe wants," he said.

To Mabel Cuffee, the judge's decision also serves as a rare counterpoint to the discrimination that her family still encounters. For example, when her now 24-year-old son, Andrew, was in the second grade, some boys chased him into the bathroom. Andrew wore his hair long.

"Indian boy, Indian boy," they taunted. "Dance for us."

Humiliated, Andrew obeyed.

When he got home, he told his mother the story. The next day, she made him dress in a traditional Shinnecock outfit - including a headpiece made of deer hair, leather and hawk feathers - and dug out a tape of tribal songs. Then she marched him into school. Since the age of 3, Andrew had been dancing in ceremonies and at pow-wows on other reservations around the country.

In front of his second-grade classmates, Mabel Cuffee said, "I put on the tapes, and he danced."

The kids loved it, including his former tormentors.

It's that kind of pride that give the judge's words real meaning to Mabel Cuffee. After suffering through centuries of oppression and discrimination, she said, the tribe is standing up and saying, "Hey, wait a minute. We're not doing this anymore."

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