Rebecca Hill-Genia, the Shinnecock Nation's grave protection warrior, confronts Southampton...

Rebecca Hill-Genia, the Shinnecock Nation's grave protection warrior, confronts Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman in August during a rally at Town Hall for the protection of the tribe's burial grounds. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

The Southampton Town Board has unanimously adopted two long-awaited measures protecting the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s ancient burial grounds, an area where human remains have been discovered during construction as recently as 2018.

Federal law establishes procedures for the discovery of remains on federal or tribal laws, but state law governs discovery on private or state-owned lands, according to the State Burial Laws Project at the American University Washington College of Law. New York State lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried to pass protection laws in recent years.

The Southampton law adopted Tuesday in a 5-0 vote requires construction to stop when an unmarked grave is discovered on a property, which occurred on a Hawthorne Road lot in Shinnecock Hills in 2018. The property owners there voluntarily stopped construction and the parcel was bought and preserved by the town.

Tribal members have been asking for such legislation for years, hosting protests as recently as late August and again Tuesday outside Southampton Town Hall shortly before the resolutions were adopted.

“Since 1640 the relationship between the Town of Southampton and the Shinnecock Nation has been marred with past injustices, land theft, and broken promises,” Shinnecock Nation chairman Bryan Polite said in a statement issued by the town. “But today marks a new brighter chapter in the 380-year relationship between the Town of Southampton and the Shinnecock Nation.”

The town board also adopted a six-month construction moratorium in certain areas of Shinnecock Hills so the town can examine land use tools “to ensure that human remains and associated funerary artifacts remain undisturbed to the maximum extent practical,” Southampton said in the news release.

“We can’t erase 400 years of history,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said shortly after the votes held during Tuesday’s town board meeting. “What we can do is move forward with some positive steps that respect the people who were here first.”

Among the injustices suffered by the Shinnecock people is the tribe’s claim that an 1859 state law illegally stripped it of about 3,600 acres on the South Fork that have since been developed into luxury homes, the Stony Brook Southampton college campus and the famed Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. A 2005 federal lawsuit over that issue was later dismissed.

The tribe, which members pointed out on Tuesday has been on Long Island for 10,000 years, was only given federal recognition in 2010.

“We have been good neighbors,” tribe member Jennifer Cuffee-Wilson said during the town board meeting. “We taught your ancestors how to survive. We taught your ancestors how to live. We gave you land. What did we get in return? You stole it from us.”

Rebecca Hill-Genia, the tribe’s grave protection warrior, has been at the forefront of the burial ground issue, which was examined in the 2019 documentary “Conscience Point.”

Hill-Genia said while Tuesday’s actions were a positive step, she would like the town to use its land preservation funds to purchase and preserve every available acre in Shinnecock Hills.

“It doesn’t mean we are staying off their backs,” she said.

GRAVES PROTECTION ACT

Southampton's newly passed legislation:

  • Creates a town archaeologist post
  • Requires a person who discovers an unmarked grave to immediately cease construction and notify Southampton Town Police. Those who do not notify police could face a $10,000 fine or 15 days in jail.

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