Bizhiki Nibauit, a Shinnecock name that translates as “Standing Buffalo,” rapped a rawhide drum hard with a mallet in his calloused hand. Beads of sweat pooled on his mustache as he kept the beat with his fellow tribesmen. They sang and praised this year’s bountiful feast laid before the Shinnecock Indian Nation on November 15 at their community center on the reservation in Southampton. Members of the neighboring Montaukett and Unkechaug tribes were invited in with open arms.
A spirited excitement was in the air. Children ran around the finely set tables, waiting for dinner to be served. Elders held their neighbors’ babies, some of whom they were meeting for the first time.
Savory aromas, reminiscent of Thanksgiving, filtered in from the open kitchen door. All the while, the grandfather drum’s thumping created a vigorous heartbeat.
This was Nunnowa—the celebration of the harvest season.
Many around the South Fork know Bizhiki Nibauit, one of the event organizers, by another name: Shane Weeks. The 28-year-old native artist and fisherman has taken it upon himself to be a cultural consultant for the Shinnecock. He lives on the Shinnecock Reservation.
When Mr. Weeks is not serving on the Watermill Center Community Fellow Committee and the Southampton Town Arts and Cultural Committee, he is teaching about his culture at schools, festivals and community group gatherings.
“Traditionally, Nunnowa is a time for us all to come together and celebrate our harvest, whether it be our crops, whales or fish,” Mr. Weeks said. “Today, it embodies a lot of what Thanksgiving is all about with all of the foods. But elements of our traditional menu included shellfish and eels. We are the people of the coastline, after all.”
Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation wear their heritage on their sleeves, with pride.
It can be seen in their ceremonial duties to their ancestors. Before the elders formed a line at the buffet table—stocked with more than a dozen turkeys and sliced hams, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, collard greens, mac-and-cheese, cornbread, cranberry sauce, venison stew and 30 gallons of apple cider—6-year-old Kellis Quinn first made a plate of food as an offering to the ancestors.
She was flanked by Aiyana Smith-Williams, who guided her movements and her prayers. Wamme Neetompaog—meaning “all of my relations”—was said, acknowledging their relationship to the world around them.
While traditional clothing was absent from the festivities, the tribe’s music was felt throughout the crowd, echoing in the ears of the volunteer kitchen staff, who swayed and hummed along. They were preparing the next round of to-go containers for elders who stayed in their homes during the first, unexpected snowfall of the season. The members of the Shinnecock Youth Council loaded 50 containers of food into their cars and drove door to door to feed their extended family.
“Over the last few years, the youth have been trying to learn how to run Nunnowa,” Mr. Weeks said. “It’s always been run by the elders, but they are getting more elderly. It’s time for them to either pass the torch, or we have to pick up the torch and preserve our tradition.” He added, “We always look forward to the torch passing.”
But the youths’ full embodiment of their culture wasn’t always displayed or encouraged in this way. Mr. Weeks said Native American history has been stifled by centuries of racism and institutional biases for generations.
Growing up in Southampton, he saw the history books he read in the school as inconsistent with the stories told around the dinner table.
“Growing up, we ultimately learned that a lot of our history and cultural knowledge was taken away from us,” Mr. Weeks said. “It was written differently in the books, and many things weren’t passed down to us because of the fear of complete cultural annihilation. At one point, Shinnecock and other indigenous children were taken out of their homes, taught Christianity and put into schools for assimilation, stripping them of their heritage.”
For instance, the story of the freight ship Circassian, which wrecked off the coast of Mecox Bay in Bridgehampton in 1876, was told differently in school.
Ten Shinnecock navigators were among crew that drowned. The Shinnecock contend that the men were held at gunpoint to stay onboard while a storm thrashed the ship. The only version of this story is passed down through oral storytelling, from a native survivor of the shipwreck. Newspapers of the late 19th century portrayed the captain as a hero and reported that the tragedy was a significant blow to the Shinnecock tribe. Mr. Weeks said that led to a land grab, and trouble for his people.
“I didn’t learn about history—my history—in school,” Mr. Weeks said. “What’s being taught here and across the country is that the real truth and the real history is not there, and it’s not common knowledge. Whether they tried to or not, they wrote us out of the history books.”
As he and the other Shinnecock children learned more about how history remembered Native Americans, Mr. Weeks said he witnessed some of his friends grow angry.
He said it’s been clear to him why his fellow Shinnecock have felt suffocated. The tribe has been challenged for decades for representation in the greater South Fork community, has struggled to preserve sacred land, and has had clashes with and brooding distrust for State Police, who are charged with responding to emergencies on the reservation.
That same feeling of discontent was present during the Nunnowa festivities—held one week before “the white man’s Thanksgiving,” Mr. Weeks said. Many said they felt uneasy as the country readied for Thanksgiving, a celebration of the first Puritans who emigrated from England in the 1620s to North America.
A few members of the Shinnecock Nation spent time during Nunnowa sharing stories about the Wampanoag tribe of Plymouth, Massachusetts, that first encountered the Pilgrims. That tribe and many others now consider Thanksgiving to be a National Day of Mourning, acknowledging the devastation Native Americans faced.
“The national holiday is a time for us to explain and teach what Thanksgiving really was about, because a lot of people celebrate Thanksgiving and don’t realize the atrocities we have faced and still face today as indigenous people. It’s an opportunity to shed light on the truth: This is what happened, this is what we got for it, and this is where we are today,” Mr. Weeks said.
It is an uncomfortable holiday for many Shinnecock, but Mr. Weeks said many members of the tribe will still take the day to lie low with family, eating turkey like everyone else. “We are a mixed culture here, and it’s a time to bridge the gap between communities,” he continued.
Despite the bittersweet feeling that follows, Mr. Weeks said tradition and heritage is what keeps Nunnowa alive. It’s a time for families to come together, for stories to be told and for values to be passed on to the next generation.
Boys were praised and awarded sweatshirts for growing out their hair, despite being mocked in school. Their braids are a symbol of their life so far. Cutting one’s hair means they are opening a new chapter in life.
Fathers howled and cheered for their sons, and tugged on their own braids, taking pride in their shared heritage.
At the end of the night, there was an exhale of song to the beat of the grandfather drum: “Wunnegan Nunnowa”: “have a happy harvest.”
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