Harriett Crippen Brown Gumbs, a trailblazing historian, educator and activist of the Shinnecock Indian Nation who forged a place for women in tribal government and business, died Nov. 25 of natural causes, her family said. The tribal matriarch and former Princess Starleaf was the oldest female Shinnecock member, at 99.
Gumbs, the mother of former tribal chairman Lance Gumbs, was a Shinnecock leader in her own right. She opened the tribe’s first retail store, earned teaching and history degrees, taught, wrote and lectured. She tirelessly advocated for Shinnecock and native causes throughout her storied life.
She lectured at Harvard, Yale and Purdue universities and was not only a scholar of Shinnecock and Native American history but a "direct line" to 1800s elders, said Lance Gumbs.
She lived and made tribal history herself, including as a leading tribal activist in a 1950s court case in which the Shinnecock Nation successfully fought off a developer’s efforts to build 10 houses on land she proved was owned by the tribe. She was the last of three formerly named Shinnecock princesses; the others who predeceased her are Elizabeth "Princess Chee Chee" Haile, and Lois "Princess Nowedonah" Hunter.
"Her whole life centered around the Shinnecock people, to preserve our land, our culture, our history and our traditions," Lance Gumbs said of his mother. "That was instilled in me. It is one of the reasons I eventually ran for tribal office."
Lance Gumbs, of the Shinnecock reservation in Southampton Town, has served multiple terms as tribal trustee and as chairman. He also is Northeast area vice president of the National Congress of American Indians.
Harriett Gumbs was born on the Shinnecock reservation on March 6, 1921, to Harriet Ruben Lee and Emmet Crippen. She was a 12th-generation descendant of the earliest natives to greet settlers to Long Island, the eighth of 10 children, and the one with "a sparkle in her eyes," according to a 2017 profile by Long Island columnist Karl Grossman, who described her "warm, sweet smile."
Her son Edward A. Gumbs, also of the reservation, told the columnist that sparkle led to her tribal designation, Princess Starleaf; a sparkle that indicated "this baby is going to be very smart."
Harriett Gumbs attended local elementary schools and Southampton High School, graduating in 1939. After marrying and raising three sons, she went on to graduate summa cum laude from Southampton College in 1975 with bachelor’s degrees in history and teaching.
She worked for three years as a teacher at the East Hampton Middle School before accepting an offer to attend a Native American law program at Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C., in 1978, Lance Gumbs said. She married twice, first to Philip Brown III, then to Launcelot Gumbs, both who predeceased her.
She is survived by three sons. In addition to Lance and Edward Gumbs, she is survived by a third son, Philip Brown IV of Westhampton. Other survivors include her 53 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
Harriett Gumbs used her history and research skills to amass the large body of documentation needed for the Shinnecock Tribe to apply for federal recognition. In 1985, she traveled to England and France to document early contacts with the Shinnecock people. Her efforts would become part of a wider body of documents that led to federal recognition in 2010.
A longtime member of the League of Women Voters, she successfully advocated for the right of Shinnecock women not only to vote but to speak at tribal meetings — rights denied to women before her time.
Harriett Gumbs also opened the Shinnecock Indian Outpost in 1950, the first of the tribe’s stores fronting Montauk Highway on tribal territory she fought to preserve. She led the tribe's fight against Great Cove Realty Co., which sought to develop 10 homes on what the court case proved was tribal land. She collected signatures for a petition and testified in the case.
"She was instrumental in saving the land here," said Lance Gumbs, who continues to operate the retail store today. She also was a licensed real-estate broker, starting in the 1950s.
Harriett Gumbs’ vision also helped pave the way for what is currently the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center & Museum, also on tribal land.
In a 1987 New York Times article examining Southampton Town’s efforts to use zoning codes to restrict the tribe’s plan to build a cultural center, Gumbs displayed characteristic spunk, saying the town would have "a fight on their hands" if they attempted to zone Shinnecock territory and ultimately tax it.
"You know," she told the Times, "we used to be the good Indians. As long as we were working for them, caddying, cooking, cleaning their houses, we were good Indians. But the minute they see our children become educated, begin to stand up for themselves, we are no longer the good Indians."
Viewing will be held Saturday at 10:45 a.m. at the Brockett Funeral Home in Southampton, followed by a vehicle procession through the village that will conclude with a going-home ceremony at the Shinnecock Nation cemetery.