On The Front Lines: Examining The Disproportionate Effect Of Climate Change On The Shinnecock Nation - 27 East

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On The Front Lines: Examining The Disproportionate Effect Of Climate Change On The Shinnecock Nation

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Marit Molin, Alex Forden and Becky Genia at the property.   DANA SHAW

Marit Molin, Alex Forden and Becky Genia at the property. DANA SHAW

The property at Shinnecock. DANA SHAW

The property at Shinnecock. DANA SHAW

Hamptons Community Outreach has been doing much needed home repairs on the Shinnecock Reservation and other areas of the East End. Climate change can accelerate certain kinds of home damage, particulary on the reservation, given its geographic location. COURTESY HAMPTONS COMMUNITY OUTREACH

Hamptons Community Outreach has been doing much needed home repairs on the Shinnecock Reservation and other areas of the East End. Climate change can accelerate certain kinds of home damage, particulary on the reservation, given its geographic location. COURTESY HAMPTONS COMMUNITY OUTREACH

Hamptons Community Outreach has been doing much needed home repairs on the Shinnecock Reservation and other areas of the East End. Climate change can accelerate certain kinds of home damage, particulary on the reservation, given its geographic location. COURTESY HAMPTONS COMMUNITY OUTREACH

Hamptons Community Outreach has been doing much needed home repairs on the Shinnecock Reservation and other areas of the East End. Climate change can accelerate certain kinds of home damage, particulary on the reservation, given its geographic location. COURTESY HAMPTONS COMMUNITY OUTREACH

Before and after photos of home repairs made possible by Hamptons Community Outreach. COURTESY HAMPTONS COMMUNITY OUTREACH

Before and after photos of home repairs made possible by Hamptons Community Outreach. COURTESY HAMPTONS COMMUNITY OUTREACH

authorCailin Riley on Mar 30, 2022

The Shinnecock Indian Territory is home to more than 200 houses — and every single one has a different story of how it was built.

Common themes emerge when these stories are told: residences passed down through the generations, from one family member to the next, each making a mark with additions and renovations, often on a tight budget, or piece by piece over time.

And while the journey of any individual home on the territory varies, there is overwhelming scientific evidence that they are all on track to be facing the same set of problems in the coming decades — or in just a few years.

The fallout from climate change and rising sea levels will eventually touch the lives of every human being, if it hasn’t already, but it is undeniable and already painfully clear that some communities will feel the effects more acutely than others. That is certainly the case for the Shinnecock Nation.

One of the truths compounding the climate change crisis is its disproportionate impact on communities like Shinnecock. Not only are tribal members living on roughly 800 acres of marshland that is, quite literally, sinking as sea levels are rising, more than half the residents sit at or below the poverty line — preventing them from spending the money it requires to mitigate damage that threatens the future of their homes.

In addition, because they live on tribal land rather than land that can be bought and sold, the Shinnecocks cannot build equity in their homes. That means they cannot access home loans or lines of credit that enable many other people to make necessary, costly improvements and upgrades to their homes, explained activist and lifelong Shinnecock resident Becky Genia.

“Even if you have a house, it’s often been passed down to you from your parents or grandparents and needs fixing up,” she said. “There’s no second mortgage you can take out to do that. At the end of the week, you get your paycheck and by the time you buy food and pay bills, maybe you have $20 left over to buy a piece of sheetrock this week, and then you buy another piece next week.

“That’s how we’re expected to live,” she continued. “Things go neglected and unrepaired.”

It’s an untenable situation with all else being equal, but with elevated climate pressure and more frequent, intense storms, an issue that might have cost only a few hundred dollars to address could suddenly bloom into a cost of thousands — or, in some scenarios, cause the full loss of a home.

On The Front Lines
 

There are several reasons why climate change and rising sea levels pose a unique degree of danger to the health and well-being of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, but the key lies in understanding the geography of the nation’s territory in Southampton.

The low-lying land belonging to the tribe juts out as a very prominent neck into Shinnecock Bay. Because it is rimmed by wetlands, the territory is “highly vulnerable” to sea level rise and storm surge, according to Kevin McAllister, the founder and president of Defend H2O, a Sag Harbor-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting Long Island’s bodies of water.

Coastal inundation, or “sunny day flooding,” is also cause for concern, he said of the phenomenon that is often an issue on Dune Road, as well as the Shinnecock Territory — which occurs when seawaters rise, penetrate the subterranean area under the land and “perch” on the water table.

The resources and means that Dune Road homeowners have at their disposal to deal with this problem, as compared to that of Shinnecock residents, are worlds apart, and McAllister acknowledged that the approach he and other climate change experts have adopted as the path forward is not currently tenable for members of the nation.

“I’ve been very vocal about the need for coastal retreat,” McAllister said. “We need to move out of these vulnerable areas. I firmly believe that, in the coming decades, we have to exit [the Dune Road area], and manage it more as a natural area and not as a residential zone.”

McAllister said that while that stance might sound “righteous,” he’d want to see homeowners “made whole” for essentially having to abandon their properties and homes. It’s a goal that should not be insurmountable — especially considering that the vast majority, if not all, of the homes on Dune Road are not primary residences.

But for the Shinnecock people, retreat isn’t a realistic option. Not only are they spiritually, emotionally and culturally tied to the land as Indigenous people — “Shinnecock” means “people of the stony shore,” a name that illustrates just how inextricably linked their culture and belief systems are to the land around them — logistically speaking, there is no governmental framework set up that would allow them to relocate anywhere else.

For Shinnecock residents like Genia, the specter of climate change adds another layer to the burden they’ve shouldered for years. Genia has watched her 28-year-old grandson raise his two children while struggling to keep up his home, which has long needed $60,000 worth of work just to get it to “living standards,” she said.

Thanks to Hamptons Community Outreach, he was recently able to complete some of those repairs. The nonprofit run by Marit Molin has been raising funds to provide local residents, both on the reservation and in other parts of Southampton and East Hampton towns, with the help they need to make overdue home repairs and upgrades that they are unable to afford.

Local contractors, including Alex Forden of Sag Harbor-based Forden & Co. Builders, have partnered with the organization to do the work, which ranges from addressing unsanitary plumbing and faulty electrical wiring to ripping out and replacing mold-infested walls and ceilings — and, in some cases, installing entire heating systems — at cost, or for a steep discount.

The inability to address baseline housing needs like these is a familiar scenario for many other Shinnecock residents — which Genia has faced herself, she said, and has seen repeated over generations.

“Basic needs of life go unmet on Shinnecock,” she said, “and it’s heartbreaking.”

Sea level rise, the increased frequency of major storms and other ramifications that are a direct result of climate change will only exacerbate these issues — and it will take more than a fundraising effort from good-hearted citizens and contractors to meet that challenge.

The Race Is On
 

When it comes to how to address the unique threat that climate change poses to the Shinnecock people, there is no simple answer — but experts agree that the race is, and has been, on.

McAllister pointed to a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which predicts that the Northeast will see anywhere from 10 to 12 inches of sea level rise within the next 30 years — a leap that he described as “monumental.”

“We ain’t seen nothing yet,” he said. “Real changes are coming.”

That kind of significant ramp up will have particularly devastating effects on areas with a geographic makeup like the Shinnecock Territory. “We visualize that as vertical, and it’s a lot,” McAllister said, “but when you consider the horizontal side of things, unless you have a gradient that jumps up in elevation quickly, even a couple of inches of rise is a lot.”

On the reservation, waters will reach significantly inland because the elevation is not present, he added, which will lead to a host of problems, including chronic flooding without a storm or even rainfall present. Water pollution could become a major issue there, as well, he said, with septic systems designed to sit above the water table level being immersed in groundwater, where it would co-mingle with bay water.

“They’re on the front lines for feeling the effects,” McAllister said.

The geographic location of the Shinnecock Territory is perhaps the most glaringly obvious risk factor for the nation when it comes to sea level rise, but it is only part of the equation when it comes to understanding the unique challenges the nation faces. Indigenous nations along the Atlantic coast are particularly susceptible to climate change due to the “compounded stressors of settler colonial systems,” according to Dr. Kelsey Leonard, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, who is part of a research program that looks at the intersection of Indigenous water and ocean practices with climate justice.

“We exist in very restricted land spaces because of colonial laws,” she explained. “Other forms of systemic injustice means we don’t have the same level of access to infrastructure, to water and sanitation structures. What we need to meet, basic human needs for maintaining a healthy society, has been historically denied to us, and that’s been further exacerbated by climate change and sea level rise.”

Leonard, who has worked in ocean policy as a representative on behalf of Indigenous communities along the Atlantic coast for more than a decade, spent a large portion of her formative years living on the Shinnecock Territory, and many of her family members still reside there. She is uniquely qualified to understand the intricacies of the challenges the tribe faces not only due to her expertise in the scientific field of sea level rise but also because of her connection to the Indigenous experience.

According to the researcher, there is no way forward for Indigenous people without empowering them in the fight against climate change and the effort to save their land — and, in return, saving their people from its devastating effects. This shouldn’t require a learning curve, explained Leonard, who pointed out that Indigenous people have employed nature-based approaches to mitigating the effects of rising seas for generations.

“We have an immense amount of traditional and ecological knowledge,” she said. “Sea level rise is not new, but we don’t have enough time to adapt like we have historically. We have to adapt quicker. When you compound sea level rise with other climate hazards, like extreme storms, it starts to become even a more compounded risk where the health of an entire community is put at risk.”

Many of the existing frameworks and approaches used to adapt to and mitigate climate change are often not in alignment with Indigenous worldviews, Leonard said, describing various hard and soft engineering strategies — like building seawalls, sand dredging, changing local zoning laws — and retreat from coastal areas as “human-centric, militarized and combative.”

“These are all designed from a Western-centric perspective,” she said, noting that those adaptations and strategies are based on a standard known by the acronym “PARA,” which stands for “protect, accommodate, retreat and attack.”

Leonard’s work focuses on an Indigenous-based approach that, fittingly, goes by the acronym “WAMPUM”: Witness, acknowledge, mend, protect, unite and move.

Approaching the problem from that mindset can take many forms, Leonard said, whether it’s creating retrofits for existing homes to better withstand the effects of sea level rise, or looking at groundwater wells and septic systems on tribal land to make sure they’re not in eroding areas.

A continued and greater emphasis on Indigenous practices is also key in combating the effects of climate change, Leonard said. The coastal habitat restoration project launched by the Shinnecock Nation in 2015, in response to Superstorm Sandy, is a perfect example. The planting of oysters, eelgrass and more helped create and bolster a living shoreline that reduces wave energy, thus mitigating hazardous effects.

“It really leans into that traditional knowledge and the ways nature itself can help reduce and sequester carbon,” Leonard said, adding, “Nature-based solutions are Indigenous solutions. Humans are part of the environment, not separate from it.”

A Way Forward
 

Non-Indigenous advocates, such as Brian Baer, executive director of The Elevated Studio Beacon, New York, also understand the importance of employing and further amplifying these kinds of strategies. His nonprofit disaster recovery firm promotes social equity by expanding access to socially responsible design, which helps communities achieve economic and physical resilience and sustainability.

Following Superstorm Sandy, Baer worked with members of the Shinnecock Nation to help rebuild their homes, picking up “where a lot of other organizations leave off” when it comes to disaster recovery, he said. His firm’s approach focuses on households that have fallen through the cracks, working with those who “don’t have the knowledge or empowerment to self-advocate and self-recover,” he said.

The idea is to build back better, he said, and reduce recovery time after disaster events from a year to weeks, so that survivors can return to their homes and resume normal life faster. In his line of work, he has witnessed first-hand how climate change disproportionately hits populations that are ill-equipped to withstand its effects — on top of already suffering other injustices.

“There’s a very large disparity when it comes to residents of color, who are typically living in areas of municipalities that are less desirable because they’re at a lower elevation, or in a swamp, or adjacent to a waterway that should not have been developed,” he said. “Indigenous nations are in that camp.”

The Elevated Studio not only helps fix damage from a storm — for instance, reconstructing a home underneath a felled tree —but also centers on proactive, preventative work. Mitigation is the name of the game, according to Baer. Something as simple as elevating a boiler or electrical panels in a home with more mold-resistant materials can mean the difference between surviving a major weather event largely intact, or experiencing a devastating total loss. Baer pointed to the fires that wiped out more than 100 homes in Breezy Point, Queens, during Superstorm Sandy — a result of the deadly mix of saltwater with electrical systems.

That is exactly the kind of devastation that people like Baer, Leonard, McAllister and others fear could become a new norm if appropriate action isn’t taken soon — and if the value of Indigenous-based and sustainable strategies are not given higher priority.

“Indigenous peoples are on the front lines of climate change, so we’re really trying to show the broader American population that the challenges we’re facing right now are in the pipeline for you to face in a few years, and we don’t have to be doomed to extinction,” Leonard said. “We can build collaborations that allow for our shared sustainable futures. But to do so, we need to dismantle archaic laws and regulations that are embedded in the American legal system. It requires us to have more modernized legislation to respond to the immediacy of the crisis.”

‘The Miner’s Canary’
 

Leonard pointed to the NOAA modeling projections on sea level rise, which indicate that, even with the best adaptation strategies, if carbon emissions are not reduced globally, sea level rise will swallow up roughly a third of the existing Shinnecock Territory by 2050, and two thirds by 2100.

Those sobering projections are a big part of why Shinnecock residents, like Genia, have devoted so much of their time and energy to the fight to reclaim more of the land that was taken from their ancestors by colonial settlers hundreds of years ago — as well as updated legislation that addresses the fate of Indigenous tribes living along the coast.

Leonard pointed out that current laws that govern transference of land to federally recognized tribes do not allow for relocation due to climate change, or for the maintenance of land tenure status in transference — meaning anyone who wants to move off the reservation is essentially forced to buy back land that was stolen from their ancestors.

“We’re basically confined to sink and die,” she said, summing up the untenability of that scenario.

To anyone who thinks the climate change issues that the Shinnecock people face will remain specific to them, Leonard referenced the words of Felix Cohen, who fundamentally shaped federal Indian law and policy while serving as an officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 20th century.

“He said that the Indian is the miner’s canary,” Leonard recalled. “What befalls them will befall the rest of the country.”

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