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PBS to air documentary chronicling Shinnecocks' efforts to save sacred sites

Rebecca Hill-Genia, American Indian Movement advocate and a

Rebecca Hill-Genia, American Indian Movement advocate and a voice for Shinnecock land rights, on the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton on Saturday. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

A five-year documentary project detailing the struggle of the Shinnecock Indian Nation to maintain its identity in the face of development around Southampton Town will be featured on PBS this month in honor of National American Indian Heritage Month.

“Conscience Point,” a film directed by Treva Wurmfeld, tells a story of a land struggle between the Shinnecock Indian Nation and town officials and developers amid decades of development in Southampton. The film is seen through the eyes of a longtime Shinnecock advocate who is pushing to preserve Shinnecock sacred land and pass legislation protecting the tribe’s ancestral grave sites.

Wurmfeld, 41, a New York City native who now lives in Los Angeles, said she became interested in making the documentary after meeting Rebecca Hill-Genia, a tribal advocate who lives on the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton, during a visit to the reservation in June 2014.

“I realized that not only was she somebody that I wanted to learn from and film, but that the whole area was this hotbed of issues that I thought was really important and a microcosm of what’s happening in many places in the country,” said Wurmfeld, referring to similar issues involving other indigenous land and groups nationwide.

While filming, Wurmfeld said she came to understand that the problems facing the Shinnecock tribe are complex, as class struggle, environmental and indigenous cultural issues are all at play.

“We’re in a critical place where these issues can no longer be ignored,” Wurmfeld said.

Hill-Genia, 63, said that in the past 20 years activists have become more proactive in letting Southampton officials know “we’re not just going to sit idle anymore and watch developers destroy our ancient burial sites and our sacred places and our ancestral territory without being accountable.”

One example Hill-Genia cited that upset Shinnecock members was the unearthing of American Indian skeletal remains at a Shinnecock Hills construction site in August 2018. Hill-Genia has advocated for town officials to pass legislation protecting such grave sites.

“The ancestors are telling us, ‘You have to right these wrongs,’” Hill-Genia said. “That’s who we listen to.”

Southampton Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said in a Nov. 9 interview that he had reached out to Shinnecock tribal members about potential legislation that would set up protocol for reporting remains found at building sites to town police.

He also said town officials and tribal members are doing more to work together.

“I think we’re finding common ground and there’s things we can do together,” Schneiderman said. “I think there’s a lot of really great people on the reservation that want to contribute to the community and to the reservation in positive ways.”

National American Indian Heritage Month — also referred to as National Native American History Month — was designated in 1990 by then-President George H.W. Bush to honor American Indians' accomplishments and contributions to the nation's culture and is celebrated in November.

Because most people outside of Long Island may not be aware that the Shinnecock Indian Nation exists, Hill-Genia and Wurmfeld said they are hoping the film’s airing during National American Indian Heritage Month will spark wider discussion and awareness of both the tribe’s existence and what its members are fighting for.

“We’re going to tell the whole world we’re upset, and hopefully, we can build an alliance of like-minded people who will help us stop this overdevelopment crisis and stop this desecration of our ancient burials,” Hill-Genia said.

SEE IT ON TV

“Conscience Point” will air on WNET/13 on the PBS series "Independent Lens" on Nov. 18 at 10:30 p.m., and will have a subsequent streaming run at pbs.org. The documentary can also be streamed on the PBS Video App.

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