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Jun 24, 2009 12:30 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Tribal members want greater protection for sacred sites

Jun 24, 2009 12:30 PM

Benjamin Franklin famously said that a society could be judged by how it cares for its dead. “Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you what kind of people you are,” the founding father is quoted as saying.

If that sentiment is true, Southampton Town has not fared well, according to members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, who are growing frustrated with the slow response of the Town Board in adopting legislation that would protect the graves of their ancestors as well as those of colonial settlers.

Tribal representatives expressed that frustration to the Town Board on Friday, arguing that little gets in the way of lawmakers taking measures to protect wildlife and the environment, but when it comes to protecting the Nation’s sacred sites, they have been slow to act.

Though relations between town leaders and the Shinnecocks have improved recently, according to Town Supervisor Linda Kabot, the issue of graves protection remains an emotional one and one not easily solved. At issue is what action should be taken when ancestral remains are discovered on private property. “All graves are sacred places” and should be protected, Ms. Kabot said, but the “rights of property owners” have to be taken into account as well.

Nation member and graves protection advocate Becky Genia said it was hard not to get upset when the issue of property rights is thrown into the mix.

“This is about justice for our ancestors,” Ms. Genia said, adding that the discussion falls apart when property owners and their rights are brought up. “We have laws to protect the piping plovers but not the graves of our ancestors.”

Ms. Kabot said she is committed to passing legislation that would, at minimum, provide guidelines to property owners regarding the proper notification after remains are discovered. But tribal leaders argue a notification policy without a mechanism in place to preserve the site is useless.

To that end, Ms. Kabot said she is looking to codify a policy that would preclude property owners from building on burial sites. The supervisor said she would like such a policy to be townwide but suggested a “Shinnecock Overlay District” be drawn up that would take in the areas of the town where the majority of sacred sites are believed to be located.

Six years ago, anger flared in the region’s Native American community after a mass grave was unearthed in Shelter Island, the handling of which Native Americans say amounted to a desecration.

“We now have a horse barn built on the graves of our ancestors,” said Chief Harry Wallace of the Unkechaug Nation in Mastic. “We have to move beyond our anger, but we cannot forget the past.”

Chief Wallace also addressed the issue of property rights, saying private property was nothing more than a convenient excuse lawmakers used to avoid taking the necessary steps to protect sacred sites. “It doesn’t get in the way of protecting rare birds or plants,” he said.

Another find that stoked the fire was the 2006 discovery in Water Mill of a 2,000-year-old skull of what is believed to be a young Shinnecock male. That discovery was unearthed during development at the site of the St. James Hotel, which is likely the site of an ancient Shinnecock fishing village. The skull is being held at a funeral home awaiting proper burial, which is being held up by litigation.

In the meantime, attorney George Stankevich, counsel to the tribe, wants the Town Board to act on recommendations filed in 2005 that address what he said are inadequacies in dealing with the issue both on the federal and state levels. “We’ve been asking for these guidelines since 2005 and we’ve been stonewalled,” Mr. Stankevich said.

Ms. Kabot said graves protection had not been a priority at Town Hall under the previous administration, but it is now. “I’ve always been an advocate of graves protection,” Ms. Kabot said.

Under the recommended guidelines, anyone who discovers a burial site or human remains would have to immediately cease development activity and notify the chief of police and medical examiner. After the necessary investigations of the find, with the landowners meeting with the descendants or relevant group, a determination would be made as to whether the remains would be relocated or left undisturbed with an appropriate memorializing of the relics. In a dispute where an agreement with the property owner could not be reached, the findings at the site would remain undisturbed and properly memorialized.

Mr. Stankevich also suggests that the town preserve sacred sites through open space acquisitions, which Ms. Kabot said she supports. In fact, the town has already offered to purchase the site of the fishing village on the St. James property for $6 million, but lawsuits from other property owners involved in that development have prevented the town from making that acquisition.

Using money from the town’s Community Preservation Fund to purchase land or easements in an effort to protect burial sites, Ms. Kabot said, is a useful tool and one the town should always consider.

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I'd like to read just one news story where Supervisor Kabot does not blame the previous administration for all the town's ills. If I recall, the previous administration paid millions to preserve property just up the street from me once it was announced that there were Shinnecock graves there. Ms. Kabot? Just once get your facts straight? That would be a nice change of pace.
By hillstationrd (6), Southampton on Jun 23, 09 3:24 PM
So true hillstationrd.

By Terry (380), Southampton on Jun 24, 09 10:54 AM
Where is this? Just curious.
By bb (884), Hampton Bays on Jun 26, 09 11:47 AM
Dig up the remains and bury them on the reservation.
By Walt (285), Southampton on Jun 27, 09 8:26 PM
I am totally in favor of grave preservation
By deKooning (97), southampton on Jun 30, 09 12:22 PM