Ann Givens and Katie Thomas: Shinnecock Indians' Court Victory Helps Tribe Gain Legitimacy





Earlier this month, a federal judge granted the Shinnecock Indians one of their biggest victories since English settlers arrived in Southampton four centuries ago - in a rare decision, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Platt decided the Shinnecocks were a bona fide Indian tribe. In the weeks since Platt's ruling, Newsday has examined the hundreds of documents that make up the tribe's application for federal recognition to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is pending.
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The history of Southampton's Shinnecock Indians sits in two cardboard boxes in a back office of the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.

Hundreds of dramatic moments are distilled there on letter-sized copy paper: Notes from contentious trustee meetings dating to the Revolutionary War; a 19th-century pastor's handwritten history of his Shinnecock parish; a genealogical tree tracing tribe members' births, deaths and marriages back to 1800.

Long Island's first residents, who have lived on the South Fork for thousands of years, lead a fiercely private existence on their 800-acre reservation, rarely discussing their lives with the outsiders they feel have so often betrayed them. But recently - with an eye toward opening a casino and reclaiming thousands of acres of their ancestral land - the tribe has applied to the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition of their status as a bona fide tribe.

That painstaking process has forced the Shinnecocks to prove on paper what they have taken for granted since English colonists first arrived in the early 1600s: that they are a cohesive, self-governing tribe.

In the wake of a federal judge's landmark decision two weeks ago acknowledging the Shinnecocks as a tribe, it is unclear whether the group still needs Bureau of Indian Affairs recognition to accomplish its goals. Still, the 1,300-page application, which Newsday obtained nearly three years after requesting it from the bureau under the federal Freedom of Information Act, provides a rare look at an ancient culture.
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Many Shinnecocks chafe at the notion that, in filing these documents, they have been forced to prove the existence of their culture to the very people who they say have tried for centuries to dismantle it. "To me, it's degrading because we've always been here," said Eugene Cuffee, a former tribal trustee. "My mother, my father, my grandparents, their parents before them."

What happened before the first 10 settlers arrived at Conscience Point in Southampton in 1640 is not part of the tribe's application, since the Bureau of Indian Affairs requires proof only of the tribe's continued existence since "first contact" with Europeans. In fact, many of the details about the Shinnecocks' early way of life have been lost over the centuries, including their language, which died out in the early 19th century.

[Editor's Note: This is a short excerpt from a much longer piece. Please see Newsday for more.]

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