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Shinnecock Indian Nation loses appeal to reclaim Hamptons land

An aerial image taken July 23, 2011 of

An aerial image taken July 23, 2011 of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, a links-style golf club located in the Shinnecock Hills in the town of Southampton. It has hosted the U.S. Open four times in three different centuries and will host the 2018 U.S. Open. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Photo Credit: Kevin P Coughlin

The Shinnecock Indian Nation has lost an appeal in its 10-year legal battle to reclaim thousands of acres in the Hamptons.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan ruled in October to uphold an earlier ruling dismissing the case, court records show.

The 3-0 decision leaves the Southampton tribe with a final option of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. Shinnecock leaders declined to comment on the decision last week through tribal spokeswoman Beverly Jensen. Attorneys for the tribe did not respond to requests for comment.

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said Monday that the Shinnecock nation received 60 additional days last week to petition the Supreme Court, if it decides to go ahead. An initial 90-day window to file the petition expired last week, he said.

“It’s unfortunate the town and the nation are at odds on the land claim case, but when it’s resolved, however it’s resolved, I believe we can work together on a number of issues,” Schneiderman said. “We are beginning to talk about economic development initiatives and environmental projects that would be mutually beneficial to the town and the nation.”

The Shinnecocks argued that an 1859 state law illegally stripped the tribe of about 3,600 acres on the South Fork that has since been developed into luxury homes, the Stony Brook Southampton college campus, and the famed Shinnecock Hills Golf Course.

New York State, Southampton Town and private developers were named among the defendants. State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office declined to comment on the dismissal.

The Shinnecocks filed the lawsuit in 2005 to a celebration of drums, songs and burning sage on the steps of the federal courthouse in Central Islip. The case began as tribal leaders intensified a yearslong effort to gain federal recognition and a casino on Long Island.

The Shinnecocks received federal recognition in 2010, but hopes for an agreement on location of a casino stalled.

Tribal leaders, at the time the lawsuit was filed, said they were fulfilling the wishes of generations of tribal members who believed much of Southampton was wrongfully taken from them in the middle of the 19th century.

In 1859, when the Long Island Rail Road was seeking to run a line to Montauk Point that would pass through Shinnecock land in Southampton, the tribe surrendered its long claim to the land to private investors in exchange for title to the 800-acre reservation it now occupies in Southampton. Twenty-one Shinnecocks allegedly signed the paperwork for the deal, but modern tribal leaders have pointed to evidence that some of the signatures were illegitimate.

State lawmakers at the time approved the land transfer, the lawsuit said, even though a 1790 federal law meant to protect tribes from swindlers prohibited states from taking tribal land without approval from Congress.

The Southampton tribe said the land in what is now Shinnecock Hills, Tuckahoe and Hampton Bays held buried ancestors and historic ceremonial sites. Burial grounds, they said, were dug up to create traps and bunkers for the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course.

The tribe sought the return of the land and damages estimated in the billions. But the case was dismissed in U.S. District Court, which cited precedents in land claim cases by the Oneida and Cayuga nations of upstate New York.

“To be sure, the wrongs about which the Shinnecocks complain are grave, but they are also not of recent vintage, and the disruptive nature of the claims that seek to redress these wrongs tips the equity scale in favor of dismissal,” U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Platt wrote in a 2006 decision against the Shinnecock nation.

While the Shinnecock Nation’s grievance over land issues began soon after English colonists arrived in the mid-1600s, this land claim dates to a specific event in 1859, when the Shinnecock say New York State lawmakers broke federal law when they okayed the transfer of Shinnecock land on the South Fork to private owners and the Long Island Rail Road.

The Nation’s lawsuit focuses on about 3,600 acres of land, estimated to be worth billions today, roughly between the Shinnecock Canal on the west and Heady Creek in the east. This encompasses what is now the Shinnecock Hills and parts of Tuckahoe and Hampton Bays.

The disputed land land includes the campus of Stony Brook Southampton, formerly Southampton College, and two worldclass golf courses, the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and National Golf Links of America.

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