Lubin Hunter, a Shinnecock Indian Nation elder and activist who flew bombing missions over the Pacific during World War II but returned to a country still plagued by segregation and racism, died Jan. 17 of natural causes, his family said. He was 104, the oldest tribal member.
Hunter was one of more than 44,000 Native Americans who served during the war, a higher rate than any other ethnic group, according to a 2015 Newsday profile. His service came despite policies that marginalized American Indians — he wasn’t recognized as a full U.S. citizen, for instance, until he was 7 years old, because of federal policies in place at the time.
Hunter was born on the Shinnecock reservation in 1917 to Walter and Marianne Lee Hunter, attended the tribe's former one-room schoolhouse, and graduated from Southampton High School, where he was a cross-country track star and record holder, in 1936. He had been awarded a scholarship to attend Ohio State University but declined because he couldn't afford expenses, including train fare, said his son Wickham Hunter, of Shinnecock, who described his father as a "humble man."
"He was not flamboyant, not somebody who talked about his accomplishments," his son said. "Nobody ever knew half the things he did. He had a quiet humility that could be quite frustrating. He helped people all the time."
After enlisting in 1941 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lubin Hunter worked as a ship’s caulker in Navy yards in Brooklyn and New Jersey, including on the USS Missouri.
Following training in the Army Air Corps, Hunter served as flight engineer, pilot and a gunner on B-17s on bombing missions over the Pacific. The destruction he witnessed led to ambivalence about his war service when he returned in 1946, though he remained a proud and active veteran all his life. "It’s nothing to talk about," he told Newsday during the 2015 interview. "I’d seen enough of the horror we had done and that’s something I’ll regret all my life."
Roots of advocacy in Queens
Hunter returned to a nation still plagued by discriminatory policies and practices. He was barred by racist covenants from buying a home in Levittown, he told Newsday.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree from Brooklyn College in 1953, he moved with his family to Queens and worked for the city Housing Authority and other social services. He became active in social justice work and causes, advocating for fair and equal housing for low-income and minority residents, his son said.
In Jamaica, he worked to stop the advancement of large projects overtaking Queens, saving homes and neighborhoods that survive to this day because of his efforts, Wickham Hunter said.
Lubin Hunter brought that passion for advocacy and social justice back to the Shinnecock reservation when he returned in the late 1980s, after the death of his second wife, Elaine. (A marriage to his first wife, Regina, ended in divorce).
He was among an active contingent of Shinnecock members who advocated for land- and tribal rights, including proceedings leading up to the tribe’s October 2010 federal recognition. More recently, he stood in support of the tribe's billboard monuments on Sunrise Highway that this past week memorialized his life and passing.
'A guiding force'
Lubin Hunter also was a mentor and advocate for the tribal members who served in positions of leadership.
"Lubin was always a guiding force not just to me but in the community," said Taobi Silva, a former member of the Shinnecock council of trustees. Lubin Hunter himself served on the tribal council.
He "lived an extraordinary life and was a huge presence and force on Shinnecock," the tribal trustees said in a statement. " ... For 104 years [he] worked, loved, and contributed greatly to his Shinnecock Community. He will be missed but his memory will live on. May the creator grant the family strength in this time of mourning."
Wickham Hunter said his father remained physically active during all but the last few years of his life. "He was driving his car until he was over 100," Wickham Hunter said. "I took him to get his license renewed at 100."
And he remained an active golfer, always walking, never in a golf cart, until his late 90s. He founded the Shinnecock Golfers Association and met with golf great Tiger Woods during the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, where he once caddied and learned to play the game as a teen.
In addition to his son Wickham, Lubin Hunter is survived by two daughters, Roberta Hunter of Shinnecock, and Renee Hunter of Harlem. His wife Elaine Hunter, and a son, Lubin Jr., predeceased him.
A service is planned for Friday at 1 p.m. at the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church, to be followed by Air Force honors and a burial at the Shinnecock Cemetery.