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With eye toward forgiveness, Shinnecocks amend constitution to allow felons to run for office

The Shinnecock Indian Nation this month voted to amend its tribal constitution to allow members who have been convicted of a felony to run for its council of trustees, with certain restrictions.

The measure was advanced as one that recognized the tribe's forgiving nature, though some said it should have been more restrictive.

Previously, the tribe's constitution banned anyone convicted of a felony from holding the office, the highest on the Southampton reservation. There are seven council trustees.

In a 115 to 76 vote Oct. 11, the tribe approved changes to a constitutional election ordinance to allow enrolled members who have been convicted of a nonsexual felony and released from incarceration for five years before election to be eligible to run for trustee. They also cannot be on active parole or probation, and cannot be registered sex offenders.

The law still provides grounds for removal from office if a sitting trustee is convicted of a felony.

One tribal member who supported the measure said it should be left to members to decide who they want as leaders.

"We all make mistakes," said the member, who asked not to be named. "You are elected on your merits or you don't get in."

Aside from sex offenses, the amendment takes no issue with the type of felony crime.

Some Shinnecock members who live off the reservation and cannot vote or run for office expressed frustration with the measure.

"I'm a little heartbroken to a certain degree," said artist Courtney Leonard, a Shinnecock member who is a visiting professor at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "I can't vote or do anything because I live off the reservation."

Leonard, who previously lived on the reservation, said she would have preferred the amendment be more specific and stronger about the types of felonies that would exclude a member from holding office. She is also among the hundreds of off-reservation members who believe all enrolled tribal members should be able to vote. About half the tribe's 1,400 enrolled members live off the reservation.

"If you're enrolled, you should be able to vote if it's a government issue," she said.

Beverly Jensen, a tribal spokeswoman, declined to comment.

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