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Shinnecock, USGA reach accord on U.S. Open participation

Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation participate in

Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation participate in a demonstration to air their claim to lands comprising the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course on the eve of the U.S. Open in Southampton on Monday. Credit: Shinnecock Indian Nation / Kelly Dennis

The Shinnecock Indian Nation and the U.S. Golf Association reached an agreement Monday for tribal participation in this week’s U.S. Open even as tensions lingered over tribal land claims, street protests and even the event’s logo.

In a joint statement released Monday afternoon, USGA said it agreed to develop the Oscar Bunn Golf Facility, named for the tribal member who once participated in the tournament. The facility will “offer a place for Shinnecock golf enthusiasts and juniors to learn to play the game and enjoy it for a lifetime.”

The agreement also allows the tribe to offer parking on a portion of its reservation, with shuttles running to the event. “We sincerely appreciate the USGA’s efforts to work with the Shinnecock Nation with this year’s U.S. Open,” the tribe said in a statement.

“It is our hope that this effort binds the community in a meaningful way, honoring the past while providing opportunity for future generations to connect with the game we all love,” USGA spokesman Craig Annis, said in a statement.

Tribal leadership as recently as Saturday had rejected a USGA offer that would have barred Shinnecock leaders from authorizing or supporting protests during the event, in exchange for USGA’s support of tribal parking and other economic activity tied to the event, according to a copy of that proposal shown to Newsday.

Even with an agreement being finalized early Monday, tribal members set up a protest area on Montauk Highway on Tuckahoe Road, and it’s scheduled to run during the course of the event through next weekend. It’s intended to bring attention to the tribe’s long-standing land claim of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course, and other issues, said Nichol Dennis-Banks, who helped organize it. “We want redress to the issue of our stolen land on Shinnecock Hills,” she said.

For David Taobi Silva, a former tribal trustee, any agreement this week is secondary to the tribe’s elemental 159-year-old claim to the land, as well as objections to the event logo.

“They are holding a multimillion dollar national event on land that was stolen from us,” he said. “You will not find a tribe member who is willing to acquiesce to that.”

He called the Open’s 2018 logo with its depiction of a Native American wearing a western-style war bonnet “insulting,” and called for its removal or redesign in consultation with the tribe. It’s the logo of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, where Silva said he knows of one tribal member who remains a caddie. Years ago, he said, it was a dependable summer job.

Tribal trustee Lance Gumbs on Monday confirmed that an agreement with the USGA was near, but declined to discuss terms.

He has been among the more vocal members advocating for a larger economic stake for the tribe. Gumbs said any agreement won’t quiet the long-standing issues over the land.

“Obviously there’s the issue of the land itself,” he said. “People say, get over it. That’s something we’re not going to get over.”

Tribal lawyer Kelly Dennis in a document said Shinnecocks trace their rights to a 1703 pact with Southampton colonists. It provided for a 1,000-year lease to the colonists for use of the land.

But passage of an 1859 law by the New York State Legislature paved the way for town trustees to sell off parcels — illegally, the tribe says. Tribal leaders at the time sued to block the transaction but were rejected.

The first auction to sell Shinnecock Hills came in 1861. Later that year 3,200 acres comprising much of the course sold for $6,250. The Shinnecock Hills Golf Club opened in 1891.

Gumbs’ first encounters with the course were in his youth, when his grandmother drove him to the land her parents knew as owned by the nation, he said. Two of his World-War II-veteran uncles worked as caddies at the course.

“There wasn’t one day my grandmother wouldn’t tell me, ‘Little man, this is our land. You have got to get it back for us,’” he said.

The tribe had a rich history in constructing the course, and keeping it up over the years. Tribal member Elmer Smith, the original grounds superintendent, was the son of a man who worked Shinnecock Hills from its inception. Elmer’s son Peter took over in 1980. The club replaced him with a nontribal member in 1999, an issue that still rankles, Silva said.

Brett Pickett, president of Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, in a statement said the organization has “profound respect for the Shinnecock Nation, and we try in all that we do to honor their history and heritage and their connection to this land. We also do many private things which financially benefit their community more directly.”

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