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Unkechaug break ground for new community center

As construction workers with a bulldozer and backhoe waited to break ground, leaders of the Unkechaug Indian Nation held a pipe ceremony at the Poospatuck reservation in Mastic Monday to bless land that will soon house a long-awaited community center.

With help from Jonathan Smith of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, Unkechaug chief Harry Wallace tapped a drum and sang a blessing that honored ancestors, trees that would "sacrifice their lives" to make way for the center and the central 2-acre plot of ground.

Tribal members and guests passed around a pipe and scattered tobacco to share in the blessing. Smoke rose into the clear midmorning air, symbolizing the offering up of prayers.

"These trees are giving up their lives so that a new beginning can take place here," Smith said.

"We bless this ground so that it becomes a special and sacred place," Wallace said, "as it always was and always will be."

Wallace said the expansion of smoke shops on the reservation provided all the revenue for the 8,500-square-foot "green" building, which will have facilities for health care and physical therapy, day care, a 30-seat classroom, 12 Internet-linked computers, a food pantry and commissary and movie theater.

The center will replace a small cinder-block building that now serves as the tribe's central building.

"We've been waiting a long time for this to happen," said Kenneth Straight Arrow Morin Jr., a tribal member and former land trustee. "It's a dream come true." Morin said he was particularly pleased the center will teach the particular Unkechaug dialect of the Algonquin language, which two centuries ago sparked the interest of visitor Thomas Jefferson.

But it's clear the center will address other, pressing needs on the 56-acre reservation.

A 2008 study by the Unity Project, a collaboration between the tribe and Stony Brook University's School of Social Welfare, found that more than a third of the tribe's 280 residents described their health as poor or very poor, with allergies and vision problems likely stemming from untreated diabetes. While tribal members have subsidized health care, treatment occurs off the reservation and health needs are often neglected.

Wallace said the building will proceed despite lawsuits by New York City and Suffolk County, which succeeded in getting a federal judge to ban certain smoke shops and their owners from selling untaxed cigarettes to nontribal members. The city and Suffolk say bulk bootleg cigarette sales deprive them of millions of tax dollars.

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