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A Shinnecock searches for the story of her family

This story appeared in Newsday on Oct. 19, 1997, as part of the "Long Island: Our Story'' history series.

The woman's relatives fill the history book, page after page of black-and-white photos. Dark-eyed people staring into the camera - weathered barns, old houses and grassy fields behind them. The fading pictures have the aura of photographs found in a long forgotten time capsule, perhaps one dedicated to a people who disappeared and whose histories were never written. Old white-haired people, young people, babies, most simply dressed and others handsomely turned out for the photographer.

They are Shinnecock Indians, descendants of the first people to live along the South Fork. In a sense, they are history's survivors, frozen in a time and a place the instant the photographer snapped the shutter. Click! There's old white-haired Wickham Cuffee, a man who hunted whales from small boats and who could talk about how it felt to bury a harpoon into a whale's back, sitting on the back porch of his house. Some of his neighbors thought he looked like George Washington. Click! There's Warren Cuffee, wearing his Civil War uniform years after the fighting stopped, a man who could talk about men dying on the battlefield. The photograph has ghostlike qualities, maybe because it was taken just before he drowned on a stranded ship called the Circassian. Click! There are generations of Eleazers on their front steps, at special events, in church clothes and buckskins and feathered headdresses.

The woman knows well these photographs of the past because they are images of her relatives. She knows the stories of the whale hunter and the Civil War veteran; she knows Warren Cuffee's name is chipped onto the stone of a memorial to the Shinnecock men who drowned on the Circassian, a memorial that sits in a patch of grass on the reservation in Southampton. She looks at these photographs, she studies them, because she yearns to make sense of their lives, and their histories.

Her name is Rose Eleazer Cuffee Samuels. She is 61 years old, and lives in Bellport. Her father was born on the Shinnecock reservation and walked away from it when he was a young boy and never returned to live there - a choice made so that the boy might have a better future, but one that reverberates in her life today.

"Eleazer and Cuffee are very old Shinnecock names," she says in a soft, graceful voice. "My father's name was Paul Eleazer. His mother was Nettie Cuffee. He left the reservation to find work. He was a quiet man, but sometimes he'd talk about the reservation. He never forgot the place. But he felt Shinnecock no matter where he was on Long Island. He did not have to be on the reservation to be Shinnecock."

Samuels has never lived on the reservation, and at this stage of her life she feels more Shinnecock than any time in her life. She grew up in Patchogue, lived for 20 years in California, and returned to Long Island to dig deep into her family's remarkable history. She has studied the life of her great-great-great grandfather, an 18th-Century Shinnecock Protestant minister named Paul Cuffee, frequently visiting the forlorn patch of woods by the railroad tracks in Hampton Bays where he is buried, his gravestone marked off by a rotting wooden fence.

Alone, she stands at the grave site and listens to his spirit talk to her. She is on a quest to learn everything she can about her people, her family, and the history of the first inhabitants of Long Island. It is her journey.

"I don't know where, exactly, I will end up," she says. "But I have a mission to complete."

The journey of Rose Eleazer Cuffee Samuels has not been without rough spots. Since early in the summer, she has been living in a homeless shelter in Bellport - this descendant of Long Island's first people has no place of her own, and has been told by Shinnecock trustees that she cannot live on the reservation. Her life at this moment in her journey seems to be a metaphor for the very people she is descended from - a people made homeless by the Island's first Europeans, who pushed the Indians off their land in exchange for items such as pots, pans, cloth, alcohol, even dogs.

Her family members - the people in the photographs, her father, her mother, who was born on the Poospatuck reservation in Mastic, her father's Shinnecock brothers, her own brothers - never got to tell their stories. If their history had not been written by outsiders they would hardly have one. Today, some of her relatives live on the Shinnecock reservation, but she knows that Indian history is not confined to a set place within formal boundaries, because all of Long Island was once Indian land. Their stories go beyond those boundaries - her father told her this when she was a child. Maybe because of her own circumstances, she believes he was right.

"I want to tell these stories so people on Long Island can know the truth, the way it was and not the way they think it was," she says.


THE INDIAN PEOPLE who lived on the fat peninsula of the South Fork were part of a huge family called the Algonquians that stretched up and down the East Coast. They were an interconnected people who lived similar lives, yet spoke far different languages that are today considered extinct. The speakers of any Algonquian language, once spoken from Maine to Florida, can today can be counted on two hands.

The first Indians arrived thousands of years ago to a Long Island fresh from the grinding and thawing of a huge glacier. The land was new, literally, and the people had to invent new lives in a newly constructed world. Over the centuries, the Indians evolved into a people who lived off the land and the ocean.

But their location would be their undoing. From coastal Canada to modern-day North Carolina, the Algonquians were the first people along the eastern seaboard to see European explorers, and the first people to see settlers arrive in small groups to "buy" their land and build villages and towns. They were the first to be exposed to European diseases that reduced their numbers, in some cases, by more than 90 percent, the first to lose their culture, their language, their religion. It would be a century before Indian groups just 100 miles to the west felt the same convulsions. To the Indians, the effects of the diseases were catastrophic; to the English, the deaths of huge numbers of Indians by diseases were a sign that God had cleared title to the land for the new arrivals.

The English who arrived on Long Island knew it was a special place. They described it glowingly, claimed it was so filled with plants and trees that its perfume could be smelled at sea long before land was sighted. It was not long after these first Europeans arrived that they met the people they were to call the Shinnecock.

Gaynell Stone writes in her massive book "The Shinnecock Indians: A Culture History," that a European who met the Shinnecock Indians in 1627, the year after the Dutch bought Manhattan Island, described their home like this: ". . . In some places it is from 3 to 4 miles broad, and it has several creeks and bays, where many savages dwell who support themselves by planting maize and making sewan (wampum), and who are called Souwenox or Sinnecox." By the early 1700s, the word "Shinnecock" began to appear in records.

To the east were bands the English called Montauketts, who were accomplished whalers. North of both groups lived a people the English called the Corchaugs, of whom today there isn't a living member. But their intricately carved arrowheads and spear points turn up in plowed farm fields as if to remind people that they once lived here. The three groups were interrelated, spoke a similar language, and traded freely among themselves and with Algonquian people who lived along the southern New England coastline, traveling from place to place in huge dugout canoes carved from oak trees.

As Stone writes, the English, after their arrival in Southampton, began "predetermined, sequential steps . . . to secure title to Indian lands and to control the Indian population." The English coveted what the Shinnecock had lived on for thousands of years - fertile farmland and woods thick with tall trees.

As the transformation from Indian land to an English community took place, relations between the two groups predictably soured. Some English houses were set on fire by the Shinnecock as a protest against land seizures and laws that applied to only them; this led to penalties being assessed against the Shinnecock. The Indians had no money to pay fines, but they had land, so the English seized more and more of it.

Laws passed by the colonists had the effect of hemming the Shinnecock in and cutting them off from their traditional way of life. They were forbidden from hunting or trapping on their former land; they were forbidden from gathering nuts in traditional areas; they were fined if the colonists' cattle fell through Indian-built underground cellars; they were fined if they did not fence their fields; their dogs were shot. They received trinkets and rum in exchange for farmland on which the English prospered. It could be argued that no people ever lost so much for so little in return.

By the early 1700s, Stone writes, the Shinnecock were given rights to the wide, hilly neck east of the Shinnecock Canal, which at that time was a place where they portaged their canoes. But they were to lose most of this land, too. Today, the northern part of their former domain features two world-class golf courses and is bisected by the Long Island Rail Road. For years, their descendants have worked on the golf courses.

By the mid-1800s, the Shinnecock were restricted to the 800-acre reservation that is their home today - the place where generations of Rose Eleazer Cuffee Samuels' family lived.


THE GRAVESITE of one of the most famous Indians of Long Island is all but lost in a tangle of trees and underbrush and sits 10 feet from the railroad tracks in Hampton Bays. On a warm, clear morning, Rose Samuels has come back again to stand and listen. To reach where Paul Cuffee was buried, she has to first park at an animal hospital across the street, walk across busy Montauk Highway, climb over a guardrail, and all but crawl down a steep, rutted embankment to the railroad tracks.

"I believe there's another grave here," Samuels says. She steps over a pile of broken bottles and other litter, putting her hands on the rotting white fence that encloses the grave site. Under one edge of the fence, opposite Cuffee's headstone, is the granite tip of a buried grave marker.

She is in her history when she is here. It is but one stop on her pilgrimage to learn more about her great-great-great-grandfather's work as a Christian minister. Time and weather have all but eroded the inscription on Cuffee's gravestone.

"I wonder who would have been buried with him?" she asks as a train makes a slow passage on the nearby tracks, drowning out her words. Like so much of the Indian history of Long Island, there is no answer to her question.

Despite the setting - the roar of traffic along Montauk Highway, the litter, the passing train - Samuels feels connected to the place. "Reverend Cuffee's spirit is very strong here," she says, clasping her hands in front of her face. "I can feel it."

Paul Cuffee was born in 1757 on the north shore of Brookhaven Town at a time when Shinnecocks were widely dispersed and working as farm laborers, on whaling boats, and, in some cases, as indentured servants alongside black slaves. As a youth, he was an indentured servant on a farm near Wading River owned by a man named Frederick Hudson. His grandfather was Peter Cuffee, and he was said to have been born in Bridgehampton and converted to Christianity during the Great Revival of the early 1740s. Peter Cuffee ministered to an Indian congregation in poor churches from Islip to Canoe Place, the local name for the high tract of ground on the west side of the Shinnecock Canal.

Ordained when he was in his mid-30s, Paul Cuffee followed the same route. He preached at churches in Wading River, Islip, Poospatuck, Canoe Place, Bridgehampton and Montauk. Legend has it that he once walked all the way from Southampton to New Jersey to preach in a church there. Paul was 55 when he died of tuberculosis in March, 1812. At his funeral, a minister read from the Bible, the fourth verse of the Second Letter of Paul to Timothy - "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." He was buried in what was then the Indian settlement at Canoe Place, and what is now a narrow patch of woods between Montauk Highway and the railroad tracks.

Years ago, before she began her quest to know more about Paul Cuffee, Samuels told her children that when she died she wanted a certain biblical passage read at her funeral - the fourth verse of the Second Letter of Paul to Timothy. "Later, when I read that the same verse was read at Reverend Cuffee's funeral, I got goose bumps," she says.

On the morning she drives to the grave site, Samuels draws lines on a sheet of yellow paper that connect her to the minister. Her impromptu chart shows the extraordinary richness of her family and the profound impact they have had on Long Island history. "We are Long Island," she says.

Paul had a son named Vincent, who had a son named Wickham Cuffee, whose photograph, along with many other Cuffees and Eleazers, grace Gaynell Stone's book on the Shinnecock. Wickham Cuffee had a brother named James, about whom Samuels knows very little. James had a daughter he named Nettie Cuffee, who was Samuels' grandmother. Nettie married Gilbert Eleazer, and the couple lived in a tiny house on the Shinnecock reservation where their sons were born. Three of those boys, including Paul, the father of Rose Samuels, left when they were very young to find work.

"We would take my father back to the reservation for Pow Wow in September," Samuels says as she stands waiting to walk across Montauk Highway to the grave site. "He liked going back and seeing old friends, but he did not believe that to be Native American you had to live on a reservation. Your ancestors were everywhere on Long Island. Wherever you are, you are home."

After her father's death in 1974, and her mother's death the year after, Samuels moved with her husband to California. There, her marriage broke up and, in 1991, she first wrote to the Shinnecock trustees for permission to live on the reservation. They never responded to her letter, she said. She wrote again a few years later and again got no response. She said she was told informally by a tribal official that there was no room for her and a building moratorium was in effect.

"Being told I could not be there . . ." she says, the sentence trailing off. ". . . was upsetting."

By the mid-1990s, Samuels was working as a live-in caretaker for a family in East Hampton, then she moved into a rental apartment in Riverhead. After her lease ran out, she felt she had nowhere to go, and last June after a series of other setbacks she and her granddaughter moved into a shelter in Bellport. She never dreamed such a thing could have happened to her, but she has taken it in stride, seeing it as a stop on her journey. Her living arrangements have not slowed her down, and she has contacted schools in the area to see if she can come in and talk to classes about Shinnecock history and culture. She also writes children's stories and plays. In December, she hopes to stage a play at a Patchogue elementary school.

At the grave site, watching the train pass by, Samuels says the next trip in her journey is to visit Paul Cuffee's first church at Canoe Place. She knows where it is - it sits on a postage-stamp size lot three-quarters of a mile east of the grave site and south of the highway on Ponquogue Avenue. She has been calling the minister who works at the church to try to set up an appointment, but they have not connected. All these years, she says in disbelief, and she has never been to Paul's church.

She looks up to see a young, well-dressed man coming down the narrow path to the grave site.

"Hello," he calls out. "My name is Richard Earl. I'm the pastor of Reverend Cuffee's former church."

"Oh, my gosh," Samuels exclaims. She tells Earl of her connection and her efforts to learn of Cuffee's life. "I've been here so many times, but I've never been to the church."

"Would you like to see it?" he asks. "I can open it up."

Stunned at her good fortune, Samuels scrambles back up to the highway. A few minutes later, the fortunate pilgrim steps gingerly inside the tiny church, walking between the pews, right where Paul Cuffee walked.

Awed, she walks slowly to the front, standing right where Cuffee preached to a room filled with Shinnecocks. A smile crosses her face, and she falls to her knees by the front pew, burying her face in her hands. And she cries. The Cuffee Mural

The mural depicted on the cover was painted in 1939 by an artist named Robert Gaston Herbert, under a program paid for by the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration. Herbert painted the mural on a wall in the auditorium of the Suffolk County Infirmary in Yaphank. The home, operated by the county as a skilled nursing facility, is now closed and in decrepit condition. A county spokesman said the building eventually will be cleaned up, but there are no firm plans for its future use.


No Room for her on the Reservation

SINCE EARLY last summer, Rose Eleazer Cuffee Samuels has lived in a homeless shelter in Bellport. She would like to live on the Shinnecock reservation in Southampton, but her requests to the tribal trustees have been rejected or ignored.

"They tell me there's no room for me," she said. "I recently found out from a relative that my father's home still sits on the reservation." She said she also discovered that the home is occupied by a distant relative.

"As a people, we have our problems. Nor do I feel that I have to live there in order to be Shinnecock. Yet I have that right. How can they keep me out?"

The Shinnecock reservation is governed by three trustees, who are elected each April. The current trustees are Peter Smith, Brad Smith and Kevin Eleazer, who is Samuels' cousin. Asked about Samuels' efforts to live at Shinnecock, Peter Smith said, "I'm not going to get involved in that," and neither Brad Smith nor Eleazer would be interviewed for this story.

A Shinnecock who asked not to be identified said, "There's a lot of politics on the reservation and people have been hurt by it."

Samuels is not the only Shinnecock to be turned away. Janine Tinsley-Roe, who is Shinnecock and lives in Bellport, also has asked to build a home on the reservation and been rejected, even though her aunt was living there at the time she applied. Today, she runs a group called the Shinnecock-Sewanaka Society, which promotes tribal history and serves as an umbrella group for Shinnecock who live off the reservation. The group has more than 100 members.

"They turn down some people but let others live there," she said. "Our goal is to organize off-reservation Shinnecocks and try to affect change there. Under the current system, nonreservation Shinnecock cannot vote in trustee elections, which is unfair. I think the trustees have lost their way. They need to be put on a rightful path."

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