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Shinnecocks: Painful story of an enduring people

This story appeared in Newsday on Feb. 22, 1998, as part of the "Long Island: Our Story'' history series.

Though Shinnecocks roamed what is now Southampton at the time of the first white settlement in the mid-17th Century, they lost ground steadily after that. By 1859, they were relegated to about 800 acres they have held ever since at the Shinnecock Indian Reservation.

There were between 400 and 500 Shinnecocks when English settlers arrived in Southampton in 1640, but the figures are general because Algonquians were nomadic and there was no census then, according to John A. Strong, a history professor at the Southampton Campus of Long Island University. The Shinnecocks sold some of their land around modern Southampton Village to pioneers, but disputes over use and ownership were common despite the general peace between the two cultures.

In 1703, the Indians won exclusive control of about 3,600 acres between Southampton Village and Shinnecock Canal - the Shinnecock Hills area - in a lease that was supposed to run "for one thousand years." Following decades of conflict and confrontation, Southampton Town persuaded the community in 1792 to establish trustees to oversee the sale of planting and grazing leases to outsiders. Gradual encroachment, petty harassment and legal action by white residents helped undermine Shinnecock opposition to altering the lease.

For example, whites allowed their cattle and sheep to graze unattended in the hills, and they often destroyed Indian crops. In a pivotal case in 1853, Strong said, two desperate Shinnecock men, Luther and James Bunn, impounded a herd of goats owned by a wealthy white man named Austin Rose. The two Indians were sued and forced to pay damages when the court ruled that they had been negligent in maintaining their fences.

The key turning point came in 1859. With land-acquisition pressure mounting because of plans to extend the Long Island Rail Road through Shinnecock Hills, town and business interests cut a deal in which the Indians forsook their leased domain and received full title to the reservation, located south of Montauk Highway just west of Southampton Village.

Many Shinnecocks bitterly opposed the deal that confined them to the reservation - a situation being repeated with Indians in other parts of the country at the time - and protested to the state. But the State Legislature approved it. Congress at the time had no jurisdiction. The Shinnecock-owned reservation, with about 375 residents now, is recognized by the state and federal governments, which provide some services.

Vigilance is still required: In 1952, a real estate firm began building houses on the north edge of the reservation in a title flap, but the courts upheld tribal ownership.

Women were not permitted to take part in Shinnecock council meetings until 1993. Most of the community's members are Presbyterians - the result of work by missionaries in the 18th Century. One of the most revered by Shinnecocks was the Rev. Paul Cuffee (1757-1812), a preacher whose gravestone is close to Montauk Highway near the canal.

The community since World War II has held an annual powwow on the Labor Day weekend that now draws about 30,000 visitors. Where to Find More: "The Shinnecock Indians: A Culture History," edited by Gaynell Stone, 1983; Shinnecock history sketch, by Harriet Crippen Brown Gumbs, Encyclopedia of North American Indians, 1990, and "We Are Still Here," by John A. Strong.


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