Southampton and Shinnecock Nation native Jeremy Dennis has always wanted to use his photography to connect sites on Long Island, like burial grounds and early settlements, to his own Native American history.
So when the 25-year-old received a $10,000 “Dreamstarter” grant earlier this month to help him achieve that goal, he got right to work. He created a website where he plans to identify places and connect them to their histories.
“My hope is that this project will create awareness of these sites and inform viewers, using the perspective of a Native American cultural vision and voice,” he said in an interview last week. “This is where we once were, and are still here.”
The Dreamstarter grant is administered by Running Strong for American Indian Youth—a nonprofit organization that was co-founded by Billy Mills, a Native American who won an Olympic gold medal—and is intended to give back to the American Indian community through different initiatives. Fifty $10,000 grants will be awarded to Native Americans over the next five years, according to the Running Strong for American Indian Youth website.
Mr. Dennis, who is studying for a master’s degree in fine arts at Penn State, said his project idea stemmed from a feeling of “not belonging,” which is why the photographs are meant to tell the Native American story.
“Many if not all of the locations that have cultural and historical significance have been sold as private property, abandoned or developed in ways that have no reference to their original cultural meaning,” Mr. Dennis said. “In my images, I want to document these locations and reinforce the connections that the Shinnecock people have to these locations.”
John Strong, a retired professor at Southampton College, an archaeologist and anthropologist, who was one of Mr. Dennis’s inspirations for the project, explained that his work is important because it will track the locations of Native American sites, which will allow the public to understand why certain areas were settled.
“It is important I think because it gives people a sense of what the terrain was like and why those sites are located where they are,” Dr. Strong said, adding that villages were usually located on the banks of freshwater streams or near other bodies of water. “He is documenting that by using techniques and photography,” he said.
“I think it is important that this kind of research is being done by a Shinnecock Indian,” he added.
A few places are already listed on Mr. Dennis’s website, which is just one part of his overall project. He is also working on a photo exhibition and a book that he hopes will be referenced as an academic source.
The first site identified is a burial ground called Indian Island, which is located at Indian Island County Park in Riverhead. Mr. Dennis explains on his website that it was uncovered roughly 10 years ago, after a storm unearthed bones that archaeologists believe to be those of Native Americans. Mr. Dennis will photograph that site to help people “understand the transformation that has happened,” he said.
Another place of note is the Sebonac Creek settlement. Mr. Dennis says that he hopes to examine “the clash between what is there now and the old settlement that was found there.”
That site sits near the Shinnecock Golf Course on Shrubland Road.
“The photographs will become an external and tangible experience for things that can only be imagined—memorials that makes the past real,” Mr. Dennis said. At the end of the grant period, which is one year, he will present his work to the public.