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Shinnecocks await word on federal recognition

Pictured is Shinnecock Indian Courtney Leonard, an artist

Pictured is Shinnecock Indian Courtney Leonard, an artist and filmmaker, who lives in a tiny cabin on the reservation. Photo Credit: Newsday / Tracy Powell

When rain falls as heavily as it did last Wednesday night, the rising waters of Shinnecock Bay creep toward Courtney Leonard's modest cabin on the south edge of the Shinnecock Indian Reservation.

But if the Shinnecocks win federal recognition - a decision that could come any day now - the 29-year-old artist and filmmaker says she isn't sure she'd apply for housing aid that would become available with the tribe's improved status.

Instead, she dreams of improving the collective quality of life on the reservation: She wants to open an art center where she can work and teach a next generation of artists like herself.

As the Shinnecock Nation awaits word from the Bureau of Indian Affairs on its four-decade request for federal recognition by Dec. 15, the tribe is looking to the future with a foot firmly planted in the past.

In a message to tribal members last month, Shinnecock leaders emphasized the importance of tribal identity, no matter how the government rules on their application. "As we approach this important date in our history, let us remember, one more time, who we are and how we came to be at this place at this time," they wrote. "We are now, and will forever be, Shinnecock, The People of the Shore. We still occupy our spiritual center, some of the same earth our forbears lived and died on. . . . We owe no debt to those who expend their energies denying our existence."

Federal recognition, if granted, would provide the Shinnecocks access to needed federal housing grants and loans, health care and education, programs and the right to build a casino on tribal land.

Homes like Leonard's are works in progress: Banks won't lend to reservation homeowners because they can't foreclose on tribal lands.

Experts say there's little chance the Shinnecocks' application will be denied given the 200-plus years of documents making their case. Still, recent rulings have been largely against acknowledgment. During the Bush administration, two tribes were federally acknowledged and 14 tribes rejected.

Under the Obama administration, which is viewed as more sympathetic to tribal causes, the case of the Little Shell Indians of Montana was recently rejected. "I'm not at all sure, given the Little Shell case, that the Obama administration is that much more accepting on federal recognition," said Matthew Fletcher, associate professor at Michigan State University College of Law and director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center.

But John Strong, an ethno-historian and professor emeritus of Long Island University, is convinced the tribe will be granted federal status. "I think they are the best documented tribe in the East," he said.

Once a decision is rendered by Indian Affairs, there's a 90-day comment period, which allows the tribe to appeal if rejected, or for outside parties to object if recognition is granted. After that there's a 60-day period for the tribe to respond to comments. If the bureau recommends recognition, the tribe could get federally recognized status by spring.

For Leonard, who is documenting on film the rise and fall of mansions across the bay, federal status means a slight leveling of a playing field that has too often favored the rich and influential. "We're not asking for much," she said.

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