Thirty-one years of waiting came to a cathartic end at the Shinnecock Indian reservation Tuesday as Long Island's largest tribe won a crucial nod in its quest for federal recognition, potentially clearing the way for the region's first casino.
With a call to tribal trustees Tuesday shortly after 4 p.m., officials at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs told the Shinnecocks they met all seven criteria for federally recognized status. Once finalized, the finding clears the way for badly needed social programs and funding, and the right to open a basic casino with video lottery terminals. Full status is expected by May.
The welcome news
Shinnecock leaders and members gathered at a closed-door meeting in the tribal community center to celebrate the news.
"We sang a victory song and people spoke from the heart. We raised our flag," said Randy King, chairman of the tribal trustees. "It was such a cathartic release of years of frustration and anguish."
The move is also the first step in the tribe's quest for a casino somewhere in the state. Trustee Fred Bess said the preliminary ruling gives the Shinnecock standing to begin talks with the state, which must approve a compact to operate any gambling facility in the state.
Bess urged officials to "to sit down and negotiate the best situation that will benefit the people in whatever location we should choose." He said he hoped "things will start happening in the next couple of months," and urged officials to "come to the table." The tribe could leverage its ability to open a small-scale casino on the reservation - a notion that previously has triggered opposition in Southampton - with an agreement to open a larger one elsewhere.
In its proposed finding released Tuesday, the bureau said the tribe met criteria for recognition. These included that it has been "continuously identified as an American Indian entity since 1900" and that it has been "a distinct community since historical times." The tribe originally applied for recognition in 1978.
Experts say it's rare that a tribe that had received a proposed finding or granted status then had it rescinded. In those rare cases where it happened, a tribe did not meet all seven criteria or had gaps in documentation, said John Strong, historian and professor emeritus at Long Island University, who has written several books on the Shinnecocks.
"It's a long time in coming," he added. "It will provide the tribe with many new opportunities."
Gov. David A. Paterson said through a spokesman that it was a "proud day for the Shinnecock."
Roots run deep
Tribal elders and younger members, long cognizant of the tribe's strong identity, said they were ecstatic. There are just over 1,000 tribal members, more than 600 of whom live on the 800-acre reservation.
"Everyone's very happy," said Courtney Leonard, an artist and filmmaker who lives on the reservation. "It's good to see there are elders who are still here to see this moment."
Lance Gumbs, a tribal trustee who intensified efforts toward recognition in 2003 after the application languished in red tape, said he was particularly pleased for his mother, Harriet Gumbs, who was on one of the first recognition committees.
"My mother is 88 years old, and I prayed she'd be able to see this day," he said. "It's a life-changing moment."
The proposed finding opens the door for social and economic services and funding for the tribe, which has long been recognized by New York State. It would ease access to grants and loans for housing in a community that doesn't have access to bank loans because banks can't foreclose on tribal lands.
It also provides programs for education and health care, and could help with the establishment of a police force and justice system. Gumbs noted that the process of applying for and receiving the services had only just begun, but he was glad it had started. "It's a hard day but it's a good day," he said.
Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), who has backed the tribe in its efforts, said the department's announcement "should be celebrated not only by the Shinnecock Indian Nation, but also by its neighbors in Suffolk County and residents of New York as a whole."
The finding in favor of the Shinnecocks marks the first time the bureau has granted recognition since approving the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts in February 2007. Most cases in the past decade have resulted in rejection, including the Little Shell Tribe of Montana just last month.
Shinnecock trustee Gordell Wright said most of what will change for the tribe is technical.
"We as a people always knew who we are, passed down from generations," he said.