Nearly 200 Shinnecock Nation tribal members and supporters rallied Saturday at Cooper's Beach in Southampton, demanding the board of trustees grant members free access to the beach tribal members have used for centuries.
The Shinnecock tribe, which means “People of the Stony Shore,” have lived on eastern Long Island for some 10,000 years. Despite their roots in Southampton and the importance of beach access to their tribe, they must pay $500 annually to the Village of Southampton for a nonresident parking pass to Cooper’s Beach — a requirement members and allies condemn.
The Shinnecock Reservation borders the village and it is about a 3½-mile walk to Cooper's Beach.
“We have called this place our home since time immemorial,” said Tela Troge, a member and an attorney who focuses on land-rights issues. “We greeted the first colonists here on the beach, and yet we’re denied access to the ocean ... Indigenous people are the stewards of the earth, and we must be allowed to access our sacred spaces, which include the ocean.”
Matthew Ballard, who is Shinnecock, Montaukett and Unkechaug, called the land the ancestral territory of the tribe. Ballard addressed the tribe’s expertise in whaling, which members eventually taught to colonists upon their arrival in the 1640s. Colonists hunted the whales to the brink of extinction. Many tribal members died as a result, Ballard said.
“We do not [expletive] owe you any money,” he said to the crowd while speaking on a megaphone. “You owe us.”
Saturday’s protest was the latest in a series of attempts by the tribe to regain free access to beaches. Troge said one effort took place in 2016 after a tribal member was ticketed for parking at Cooper’s Beach.
She told Newsday that tribal members “did a lot of advocacy in an attempt to work out a solution with the village so all tribal members could have free access. They attended a lot of meetings, but the effort went nowhere.”
Troge said she has reached out more recently to Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren in an effort to iron out an access agreement, but has not heard back from him.
Warren on Sunday said he has been in communication with Shinnecock tribal members to come to a solution about the beach access and noted tribal members can get parking stickers for $250 less than the non-resident $500 pass. He said he may have a partial resolution later this week.
The Shinnecocks once collected annual rental payments from homes on tribal land on Meadow Lane fronting the ocean, Troge said.
Now, tribal members want the village either to recognize a tribal ID card for free access to Cooper’s Beach, or provide free access stickers to members who request them. It costs $50 to enter the beach daily, or $500 for the annual pass.
“We are trying to work out a creative solution with the village,” Troge said.
“My invitation to work on this with the mayor was completely ignored," she said. "There hasn’t been any progress at all. That’s the reason for our direct action.”
As it stands, tribal members who park in the Cooper’s Beach lot are ticketed, although the Village Justice Court routinely has dismissed the violations when members appear in court to fight them, Troge said. She said she wasn't sure of the reasons for the dismissals, but many members lose a day’s pay to fight the tickets. A call to Southampton Village Justice Court wasn’t returned.
The tribal access issue has arisen in other places.
In May, the Narragansett Town Council in Rhode Island approved a measure to grant the Narragansett Indian Tribe’s 3,000 members free access to town beaches.
During hours of testimony, tribal members argued the beach was native land. The measure passed in a 3-2 vote. Tribal members still must pay a parking fee, but no longer pay a $12 access fee, according to reports.
Troge argued that Shinnecocks never relinquished access to Cooper's Beach.
“We still have rights to the beaches,” she said. “We have reserved rights.”
With John Roca