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Shinnecock leaders thinking beyond casinos

Trustee Frederick Bess speaks to reporters after the

Trustee Frederick Bess speaks to reporters after the Department of the Interior issued preliminary approval to add the Shinnecock Nation to their list of federally recognized tribes. (December 16, 2009) Credit: Mahala Gaylord

With word last week that the Shinnecock Indian Nation won preliminary approval for federal recognition, tribal leaders have swung into action to prioritize a to-do list that has grown long in its 31-year wait.

While the spotlight has been on the tribe's casino plans, the need for housing and basic services looms larger.

"We've come up with a matrix of funding opportunities we're going to file for so we don't miss this [federal] budget cycle," Shinnecock trustee chairman Randy King said. "We have to bolster our offices, update education and computer systems, improve housing for our people . . . We've been trying to raise funds for a day-care center. We need to repair our roads."

Today, there is little infrastructure to speak of: Two of the newest buildings on the reservation provide limited health and education services. Unlighted roads are patrolled by a small private security detail. Hopes for a substance-abuse treatment facility have stalled.

Plans for a day care facility only recently got a boost, from a federal grant of $600,000 that was unrelated to recognition.

Tribal leaders say the security detail would be replaced by a formal police force, trained at a federal tribal academy in Artesia, N.M. Unpaid tribal leaders and their staff would be able to devote full time to paid positions.

"It's all still fresh," King said.

One model the Shinnecocks can look to once formal recognition comes is the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts. It was recognized in 2007, which allowed it to apply for many federal aid and grant programs that paid for some big changes.

Since then, the 2,000-member tribe has installed a government with 35 paid officials, judges, staffers and others, said Mashpee chairman Cedric Cromwell. It recently received a $2 million grant for low-income housing. It now has a civil court with a sitting chief justice, two court judges and a clerk.

The Mashpee seek to turn 680 acres of land they own into sovereign land-in-trust, allowing the tribe to open a casino and hire a police force.

Early next year, Cromwell said, the federal government will ship modular buildings for a tribal medical clinic. A natural resources department will help develop a shellfish bed to help the tribe create an industry. A charter school is in the works. "We have a true nation," he said. "You have to do this as a full-time job."

King and other Shinnecock trustees Gordell Wright and Fred Bess say they have many of the same ambitions.

While most Shinnecock children attend Southampton public schools, Wright said the tribe will "eventually look into having a school on the reservation." He noted that his grandmother attended the schoolhouse that formerly stood here.

Bess said that while the tribe is eager to open a casino, it has all but ruled out the idea of doing so on tribal land.

A drive through the reservation quickly demonstrates that the most pressing need is housing. Because banks cannot foreclose on homes in Indian land -- and so do not make loans -- many are longtime works in progress in need of repair and upgrades. Tribal elders are thrilled a new generation may not have to struggle as they have.

When he arrived home from World War II to the Shinnecock reservation in the late 1940s, former tribal trustee Avery Dennis remembers that he didn't return to quite the same American dream that other veterans did.

"I couldn't get a house loan," said Dennis, 88. "Things were very rough. Luckily we were good with our hands. We had to do it ourselves."

Now, the Southampton tribe hopes many of the strains that Dennis and fellow tribe members have lived under for decades could ease.Dennis said he knows a sudden influx of money can create complexity and conflict within a tribe, but he's says he is not worried. "It's a long time coming," he said. "Money can turn you. I wish we'd had it to turn."

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