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Native pride: Long Islanders seek to preserve indigenous culture

Native Americans talk about the current inequities that

Native Americans talk about the current inequities that many Native American people are confronted with today. Native American Heritage Month will be observed at the Southold Indian Museum.

In a year when the nation’s diversity has been in the forefront, the Southold Indian Museum will be offering an opportunity during Native American Heritage Month to connect with Long Island’s original, indigenous cultural and ethnic groups.

From 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 22, visitors to the two-floor museum can see displays of arrowheads, wampum jewelry and Algonquian ceramic pottery — and they are encouraged to bring their own archaeological "finds."

"It’s a way of seeing that native people are still here, that we’re very much a part of the community," said museum trustee Jay Levenson, who calls Long Island's Native Americans "the visible invisibles."

"Any object that they think might have been Native American — an arrowhead, a tool, an adze, a pestle," will be classified and dated to a period by an archaeologist, said Levenson, 54, of Sound Beach, who identifies as a Haudenosaunee of the Mohawk Nation and has European ancestry.

Levenson plans to set up a display table of his collection of authentic bead work, drums and snapping turtle rattles. He will also answer questions about Native American life, past and present. (Of course, social distancing, face-covering requirements and other COVID-19 protocols will be in place.)

Native Americans have been living on Long Island for at least 10,000 years — and were the original inhabitants here, tribal officials say. Yet, according to the U.S. census population estimate from 2019, just 0.6% of 1.48 million Suffolk County residents and 0.5% of 1.36 million Nassau County residents identify as Native American.

Many are from the Shinnecock Indian Nation, one of the oldest self-governing tribes in the country, with about 1,200 members residing on a 900-acre reservation in Southampton, according to the tribal office. The 55-acre Poospatuck Reservation in Mastic is home to about 200 to 250 members of the Unkechaug Nation, according to former chief Harry B. Wallace.

As with most Long Islanders, the indigenous population is diverse, including people who are biracial or multiracial.

"I see myself as native, but I’m also Black," said Monique Fitzgerald, 41, a social worker who lives in Bellport. Fitzgerald traces her maternal ancestors to the Setalcott Indian Nation of the Setauket area.

"Not living on a reservation, it’s hard to maintain your culture," Fitzgerald said. "You don’t have those traditions passed down from generation to generation because everybody’s spread out."

Native American Heritage Month, observed in the United States every November, is a time to celebrate those "traditions and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people," according to the website of the National Congress of American Indians.

Here are five Long Islanders who are working to improve Native American lives through the arts, political action, advocacy for native rights and the preservation of native languages.

Ginew Benton, 39, an Ojibway who lives in
Poster of the "LOOKING GLASS", a film written
Image of Tokala LaPointe in a scene from
Clockwise from above: Ginew Benton, above right, an Ojibway who lives in Calverton, is a filmmaker and writer who used family in his award-winning movie, "Looking Glass," including his cousin Aché Wequai Smith, above left, who plays the younger version of Benton in the film. "Looking Glass" was filmed on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation. Tokala LaPointe in a scene from Benton's film "Iron Shirt," which is now in production. | Photos by Bryan Downey

Moviemaking with a message

Award-winning filmmaker Ginew Benton’s latest cinematic project touches on themes that have made his films popular at festivals from Oregon to New Zealand.

"Iron Shirt," his first feature, which is currently in production, is "about a child superhero, and how our oral histories and our legends play a part in who this child becomes," said Benton, 39, an Ojibway who lives in Calverton.

It’s a follow-up to "Looking Glass," a 20-minute 2018 film Benton scripted, directed and starred in. Shot on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation with a $1,000 budget and a cast of friends and family members, "Looking Glass" became a festival favorite, picking up the Special Jury Award For Original Concept this summer at the Bend Film Festival in Oregon, and an Award of Merit and Honorable Mention last year at the AFI World Peace Initiative in Cannes, France; it’s available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Benton was born in Manitoba, Canada, but he was raised from age 9 on the Shinnecock Reservation after his mother, Sherry Blakey-Smith, married former tribal trustee Charles K. Smith II. He began working on film projects as a high school student at the Ross School Media Center in East Hampton. A 2007 Sundance Film Festival fellowship helped him develop the script for "Looking Glass."

Benton has been showing "Looking Glass" at Native American events, where he’s also gained fame as a traditional singer and dancer. During Q&A sessions, he’s often asked about the film’s jazzy soundtrack, which honors his maternal grandfather, Art Blakey Jr., the son of the jazz great and an accomplished musician in his own right. Said Benton: "I wanted to include his art in my art, to acknowledge my upbringing."

Shinnecock Nation member Meesha Johnson, 43, with her
Meesha Johnson, 43,a graduate social work student at
Shinnecock Nation member Meesha Johnson, 43, with her
Clockwise from above: Shinnecock Indian Nation citizen Meesha Johnson, above center, with her mother Michelle Johnson, above left, and daughter, Summersnow Stith. Johnson, who lives on the reservation, has been putting a recently earned Stony Brook University master’s in social work to use as director of a program combatting opioid abuse among tribal youth. Seen outside the Shinnecock Indian Health Services office in March 2020, worked to improve census turnout on the reservation. | Photos by Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca (above and lower right); Randee Daddona

Counting native people

Meesha Johnson, 43, a political activist and citizen of the Shinnecock Nation, took on a vital task this spring: Encouraging fellow Native Americans to complete their U.S. census forms.

As a onetime aide to former U.S. Rep. Timothy Bishop of Southampton and a candidate in her own right (in 2019 she ran unsuccessfully for the Southampton school board), Johnson knows the importance of the decennial head count, which is used to apportion federal aid and representation.

After launching the initiative in Riverhead with the Suffolk County Native American Advisory Board, which she cofounded, Johnson worked from her home computer to alert members of the Shinnecock, Unkechaug and other native communities on Long Island about the impending September census deadline.

"We used social media as a platform to educate people about the importance to respond," she said. She recruited her daughter, Summersnow Stith, 19, and a half-dozen other Shinnecock youth to record TikTok-style videos, which were edited together into a five-minute public service announcement posted to Twitter and Instagram.

Johnson, who this spring completed a master’s degree in social work at Stony Brook University, continues to work with young people as director of Blossom Sustainable Development, a not-for-profit anti-substance abuse program on the Shinnecock Reservation.

"I’m putting together education materials about historical trauma, and how it impacts drug and substance abuse, domestic violence and unemployment," Johnson said. "Our young people nationally are at the highest risk of suicide, alcohol and drug abuse compared to any other ethnic group," she said.

Johnson explained that the distrust of outside governing agencies over such historical injustices as forced assimilation, broken treaties and destruction of American Indian culture often results in a lack of respect for authority and high rates of incarceration among Native American men and women. An analysis of 2010 census data by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, for instance, found the incarceration rate of Native Americans/Alaska Natives to be more than double that of white Americans.

She’s also considering another run for public office. "I’ve had quite a journey with my health," said Johnson, who is visually impaired as a complication of Type I diabetes. "But glory be to God, I’m still able to give back to a community that I cherish and love so much."

Harry B. Wallace, 66, was chief for 25
Harry B. Wallace, 66, was chief for 25
Harry B. Wallace, 66, was chief for 25
Harry B. Wallace, photographed in November at the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge, above, was chief for 25 years of the Unkechaug Indian Nation on the Poospatuck Reservation in Mastic lower right. He is a lawyer, a lecturer and co-founder of the Algonquian Language Revitalization Project at Stony Brook University. Studying Algonquian, he said, “is more than just learning how to speak, it’s about understanding a way of life.” | Photos by Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

Learning the Algonquian language

Long Islanders may not realize it, but they all know a little Algonquian, the ancestral tongue of the Shinnecock, Unkechaug and Montaukett people.

"Words like moccasin and opossum and the names of towns — Patchogue, Ronkonkoma and the school district known as Sewanhaka — those are all Algonquian words," said Harry B. Wallace, 66, a former Unkechaug chief who owns and runs the Poospatuck Smoke Shop in Mastic.

He is an outspoken critic of the so-called Indian mascots used by some local school sports teams. "That’s not something to be proud of because it denigrates people," Wallace explained, adding that he recently met via Zoom with representatives of a Long Island school district about its use of a Native American mascot for its sports teams.

Wallace was born in "a large enclave of family and native people" in his grandmother’s home in Flushing, Queens. He went to law school and had a private practice until he moved in 1991 to his mother’s land on the Poospatuck Reservation. He served as the chief on the seven-member tribal council for 25 years, losing reelection in July. Among his tenure’s proudest accomplishments, he said, was establishing a full Native People’s Scholarship for Unkechaug students.

Wallace also cofounded Stony Brook University’s Algonquian Language Revitalization Program. He assists University of Southern Maine linguistics Prof. Conor McDonough Quinn in teaching an Algonquian course that uses a 200-page Unkechaug dictionary and has 40 students currently enrolled, including a number of Native Americans.

"We’re teaching what we know, but we’re also trying to gain the ability to become fluent," Wallace said. Studying Algonquian, he said, "is more than just learning how to speak, it’s about understanding a way of life."

Joseph M. Pierce, 37, grew up in Corpus
Joseph M. Pierce, 37, holds a copy of
Ada Rock, the biological grandmother of Joseph Pierce
Clockwise from above: Joseph M. Pierce, above, an associate professor of Latin American Studies at Stony Brook University who grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, thought he might be Mexican American; one of his books, top right. Pierce learned of his Native American ancestry after his father, Randy, right, discovered his birth mother, Ada Rock, below left, was Cherokee. | Photos by Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca (Joseph M. Pierce and book); Cathy Pierce

Connecting with Cherokee roots

Joseph M. Pierce grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, unaware of his Native American roots — or the existence of a long-lost grandmother north of the Texas border.

"I thought that maybe I was Mexican American when I was young because we didn’t know anything about my father’s biological family," said Pierce, 37, an associate professor of Latin American Studies at Stony Brook University.

Pierce was 22 when his family unsealed 1952 adoption records, which revealed that his father, Randy, was given up as an infant by his mother, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who was 19 and single at the time. Ada Rock, who was living in Oklahoma, reunited with Joseph, his father and other family members in Lubbock, Texas. Rock died in 2014.

"She was happy that we had reached out to her," Pierce said. "We started a relationship that would change all of our lives." By virtue of his genealogy, Pierce said, he became a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Pierce, whose mother is of Western European descent, has honored his diverse background by working for inclusion. As the diversity officer for the Stony Brook faculty/staff union, he said, "One of my principal aims has been to advocate for our members suffering racial discrimination." For instance, he drafted a union resolution in solidarity with members who were experiencing anti-Asian discrimination early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

His experience on Long Island, however, illustrates the problem, he said. He wound up moving into the city in 2014 after living briefly in Setauket, where he described feeling unwelcome as "a queer person of color," he explained. "I never experienced overt racism or homophobia, but I felt like people would recoil from me in certain places. People would look at you as if you didn’t belong."

"I don’t get that in Brooklyn," he said

Tela Loretta Troge, 33, a Shinnecock Nation attorney
Tela Loretta Troge, 33, (center) a Shinnecock Nation
The monument electronic billboard on Sunrise Highway in
Tela Loretta Troge, above and center in top-right photo, a Shinnecock Indian Nation attorney who specializes in federal Indian law and represents tribal sovereignty interests, at the Sovereignty Camp at West Woods in Hampton Bays. “It’s basically a teach-in promoting our inherent right to conduct economic development,” Troge explained. Bottom right, the Shinnecocks have erected a sign on Sunrise Highway in July. | Photos by Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca (above and top right); Randee Daddona

Shinnecock tribal lawyer

Tela Loretta Troge, 33, of Riverhead, an attorney specializing in federal Indian law, traces her family tree to two different nations. She is officially a citizen of the Shinnecock Nation in Southampton. But since childhood, she has also been spending at least a week each July with family on the Hassanamisco Nipmuc reservation in Grafton, Massachusetts, where her late grandfather was a chief.

"Being connected to both nations has given me perspectives that others don’t necessarily have on challenges that we face," she said, such as "defending our ancestral land from a government takeover, which is sparking a nationwide movement among young indigenous activists called #landback."

Troge also regularly addresses legal challenges such as economic development, health care, and fishing and hunting rights.

Through December, she is serving as the Shinnecock’s COVID-19 administrator, a role in which she has distributed more than $2 million in federal CARES Act funds. "We paid everyone’s utility bills and bought food gift cards for people on the reservation as well as Shinnecocks in the tristate area," Troge said. She expects more federal funding "to address food and housing insecurity and meet people’s basic needs."

Born at Southampton Hospital, Troge lived on the reservation until she was 5, when she moved to another grandfather’s home in Riverhead. "My family had houses out here to protect their children from having to go to Indian boarding schools, which involved agents coming onto reservations and abducting children when they were 5 years old," she said, referencing the forced assimilation of native children by the U.S. government that ended with the passage of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.

After graduating from Riverhead public schools, Troge got a law degree at Michigan State University. Afterward she worked for the federal government in Washington, D.C., including two years in the Office of the Solicitor for the Department of Indian Affairs. In 2015, she opened a law practice, which also specializes in commercial and residential real estate.

She’s also active in the Warriors of the Sunrise Shinnecock women’s group. All month through Thanksgiving, the group is maintaining a Sovereignty Camp at Canoe Place, tribal land along Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays.

"It’s basically a teach-in promoting our inherent right to conduct economic development," Troge said.

"Our community is facing extreme challenges and the needs are incredible," Troge said of reservation life during the COVID-19 pandemic. "So we’re trying to open businesses to generate revenue and meet the basic needs of our people."

Where to learn more

Garvies Point Museum & Preserve (50 Barry Dr., Glen Cove, 516-571-8010, garviespointmuseum.com). Exhibits about Native Long Island culture, geology and more; Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Southold Indian Museum (1080 Main Bayview Rd., Southold, 631-765-5577, southoldindianmuseum.org). Archaeology and natural history exhibits; Sunday, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.

Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center & Museum (100 Montauk Hwy., Southampton, shinnecockmuseum.com. The museum is closed for renovation; for information email shinnecockculturalcenter@gmail.com.

National Congress of American Indians (ncai.org). Learn about Native American governments, people and rights.

— Jim Merritt

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