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Shinnecock land claim draws wide press, but most miss point

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SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. - The 2nd Circuit Court opinion potentially voiding
Indian land claims in New York state arrived just after a new claim made a
big splash, with the highest price tag yet and a potential roster of
celebrity targets.

The Shinnecock Indian Tribe of eastern Long Island, which historically has
lived in poverty next to the summer mansions of New York's super-rich and
famous, recently filed suit for 3,500 acres allegedly stolen in what it
calls the Great Dispossession of 1859. Although the fate of the suit is
uncertain, it draws attention to a roster of serious grievances and one of
the most dramatic juxtapositions in the country of mainstream wealth and
Indian exploitation.

The suit names New York state, Suffolk County, the town of Southampton,
Long Island University, the Long Island Railroad, and several local
developers and businesses, including two championship-level golf courses.
It does not go after any individual landowners, although the tribe left
open that possibility in a later suit. Tribal Board of Trustees Chairman
Randy King told Indian Country Today that the tribe's lawyers were
researching an aboriginal rights claim that could cover the entire town of
Southampton.

The current suit is based on a 1,000-year lease for several thousand acres
signed in 1703 between Southampton and the tribe, a marine-oriented people
from the Algonquin language group. The suit charges that a group of
powerful investors conspired to break the lease in 1859, sending the state
Legislature a fraudulent petition from a number of Shinnecock tribesmen.
Although other tribal members immediately protested that the petition was a
forgery, the Legislature approved the sale of 3,500 acres.

According to the suit, the state action violated the federal Indian Trade
and Intercourse Act, the basis for most other tribal land claims suits.

The June 15 complaint is attracting national attention, mainly because of
the notoriety of the Hamptons, whose summer playground season is just
getting into full swing. It helps that the damages for the prime real
estate dispossessed since 1859 are estimated at $1.7 billion, making the
suit potentially the most costly Indian claim yet. And the casino angle is,
as always, an irresistible pull for mainstream reporters.

Potential casino backers are funding the suit and a public relations
campaign, bringing millions of dollars in resources to a tribe which until
recently depended on a Labor Day pow wow for fund-raising.

But in its fixation on celebrities and casinos, mainstream media largely
overlooks the Shinnecock tribe's grievances. The state-recognized tribe of
1,200 has been frustrated for years in seeking federal recognition. Its
dominant position on the South Fork of Long Island, which it says goes back
10,000 years, was whittled after contact to the present 800 acres. Although
the town's affluent residents have employed Shinnecock as housemaids and
caddies, they otherwise ignored the tribe's existence.

"The town has tried to write us out of the history books," said King.

Even worse, the habits of the over-privileged have done serious damage to
the tribe's health and economy. The runoff from the over-fertilized lawns
of mansions overlooking the reservation has polluted its drinking water and
helped destroy its oyster beds. King said the tribe has only recently begun
to restore the shell fishing crucial through its history, thanks ironically
in part to a grant from the inventor of Miracle-Gro.

The suit also reflects tribal anger at developers who it says are
encroaching on sacred sites and old burial grounds. The suit accuses one
defendant, the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, of "using the burial grounds of
Shinnecock persons as bunkers in the Shinnecock Hills golf course, and
desecrating sacred burials through digging up and randomly discarding the
remains of Shinnecock persons in order to create 'traps' for the Shinnecock
Hills golf course."

The suit also targets principals in a development around Parrish Pond that
was the site of tribal demonstrations four years ago. Three members were
arrested during an altercation with state police, although charges were
later dropped. Some national reporting has emphasized criticism of the land
claim tactic within the tribe, but the Parrish Pond protests were led by
tribal dissidents who complained that the council of the time was too
passive.

The suit reflects that militant spirit. In a written statement, King said:
"The time has come for us to fight for our people, who need and deserve
good jobs, better health care, quality schools for our children and housing
where we can be proud to raise our families. Our people had a choice,
continue to be poor, passive and invisible, or stand proud and say, 'no
more.' Before every inch of our sacred lands are lost, we will fight."

In introducing the suit, the nation said it was acting "because of growing
hostility toward Native Americans in Washington." It cited a call from some
congressmen, notably from Connecticut, for a two-year moratorium on federal
recognitions of tribes. "This would have a chilling effect on the options
for economic development available to the Shinnecock," said the statement.

As almost all reports have mentioned, the main economic plan on the table
is a controversial casino development. In 2003, the Shinnecocks began an
aggressive push for a Class II casino, working with Oklahoma businessman
Ivy K. Ong. The tribe even cleared land on a site separate from its
reservation before federal Judge Thomas C. Platt issued an injunction.

(In the course of the hearings, Platt expressed impatience with the slow
pace of the recognition process and threatened to decide the issue himself.
BIA and Department of Interior officials managed to talk him out of it. The
BIA now has the Shinnecock petition on "active consideration," but it has
warned that with the current backlog, it could take 10 years for a final
determination.)

The tribe has also apparently backed away from the risky business of
opening a Class II casino prior to recognition. According to press reports,
it is now being financed by Gateway Funding Associates, a company based in
Detroit which is devoted to the Shinnecock project. Its main investors are
said to be real estate developer Michael Malik and Marian Ilitch, whose
other interests include Little Caesar's Pizza and the Detroit Tigers.

The suit has echoes of the recent "land rights" filing by the Onondaga
Nation near Syracuse, the central member of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois
Confederacy). Like the Onondaga, it emphasizes environmental issues and
targets governments and business organizations, not individual landowners.

Shinnecock leaders explicitly referred to efforts of Gov. George Pataki to
resolve land claims with the Iroquois tribes. The most promising of these
efforts, however, suffered a setback when the state Legislature recessed
June 23 without ratifying an agreement with the St. Regis Mohawks.

But the suit also harks back to the Mashantucket Pequot land claims suits
of the early 1980s, which prompted Congress to pass a Settlement Act giving
the tribe federal acknowledgement.

Opposition to the suit is also drawing on some of the themes and,
reportedly, personnel which have been directed in the past five years
against the Mashantucket Pequots. A recent editorial in the Hampton-based
Independent even questioned whether the current tribal members were really
descendants of the original Shinnecock. This is a racially charged issue
since, like many eastern Algonquins, tribal members have inter-married with
black freedmen.