Growing up on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton, photographer and artist Jeremy Dennis was always eager to learn more about his culture and find his place in the world as an indigenous person. In his quest to learn more about his roots, he realized that many people are unfamiliar with Native American culture. In an effort to combine his photography skills and his desire to share the rich history of indigenous people on Long Island, Mr. Dennis cultivated the “On This Site” project.
“On This Site: The Indigenous People of Suffolk County,” is an exhibition of photographs that feature landscapes of cultural and historical significance to Native Americans. The goal of Mr. Dennis’s project is to reinforce his cultural identity and that of other tribal members living in Suffolk, to raise awareness of Native American culture and to preserve significant and sacred sites.
Mr. Dennis noted that he has seen an increased awareness of Native American culture, but he believes it could be better. He said he thinks the first step to making more people aware of the community of indigenous people in Suffolk County is to prioritize the preservation of their land.
“I think it is important to preserve indigenous culture in Suffolk County because that knowledge creates a connection between us living here today and the land we occupy and how it was once used,” the 27-year-old said. “Indigenous people here have lived in balance with the land due to their unique connection to specific places and resources, but I feel this has been lost, and as a consequence, we may value the land we occupy less significantly.”
After receiving a $10,000 grant from Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a national nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for self-sufficiency and self-esteem in American Indian youth, Mr. Dennis went to work on the project in April 2016 and continues to improve it today. Cultivating “On This Site” wasn’t always easy; Mr. Dennis said there was much more that went into putting together the project than just photographing landscapes.
“All of the photography is done by me; first through gathering and researching anthropological, oral histories, and archaeological reports done by academics before me, then trying to gain access to the location of the sites, and finally going in person to take a series of photographs and narrowing them down to one,” he shared.
One of Mr. Dennis’s favorite sites he photographed is the Jamesport Site on the North Fork, a ceremonial burial ground from the Orient Period (1300 to 1000 B.C.) that remains largely undisturbed, unlike others on the North and South Forks that have been destroyed due to housing construction.
“Part of the process is being sensitive to not revealing the specific location of some of the sites while encouraging visitation to others that are protected and have historical markers,” he said. Having this last site be preserved and presented is an accomplishment, but the purpose of including this site in the project is to prevent it from being disturbed in the future by having information available online and in this exhibit.”
Mr. Dennis hopes people will leave the exhibit with more knowledge about Native American culture and a better understanding of why it is so important to preserve indigenous sites.
“The most important takeaway from this exhibition is the message that we have occupied this land for more than 10,000 years, and continue to do so,” Mr. Dennis said. “What has happened between that time and now, I hope to learn and share with the public. Being able to research and be a Native American cultural producer, I believe, accomplishes this goal.”
Jeremy Dennis’s exhibition “On This Site: The Indigenous People of Suffolk County” opens with a reception on Saturday, July 15, at 1 p.m. at the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum in Riverhead. The exhibition will run through September 30. For more information, call 631-727-2881 or visit suffolkcountyhistoricalsociety.org.
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