Shinnecocks assert right to determine political structure.

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Historic elections held on tribal land

By Gale Courey Toensing -- Today staff

SHINNECOCK, N.Y. - With a nod to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which says all people have the right of self-determination and to freely determine their political status, the Shinnecock Indian Nation shook off a political structure imposed on the tribe in 1792 and for the first time held elections on tribal land.

At the historic April 3 election, members voted for their three-member trustee board in the spacious ground-level Shinnecock Community Center instead of a courtroom in the basement of the Southampton Town Hall.

The move followed an election reform ordinance prepared by the Tribal Council Election Reform Committee and adopted by tribal membership in January. The venue change is the first action toward restoring a tribally determined political structure, tribal leaders said in an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today.

''For over 200 years, it's been a colonial form of government imposed on us, which is a trustee system designed to monitor the activities of the tribe and to provide some type of control over us; so this is an act of breaking away and, hopefully, the first step of many that will encourage a return to a purely tribal cultural form of government,'' said Randy King, newly elected trustee chairman.

Frederick Bess and Lance Gumbs were elected as trustees. All three are former chairmen.

The imposed structure ''was a system designed basically to have the tribe not make decisions, and it was very destructive to our nation,'' Gumbs said.

It dictated not only the three-member trustee board, but also when the tribe would meet and how long polls were open.

''One of the reasons they set up this trustee system was because when they had land transfers, they needed people - whether they were under the influence or whatever - to sign those documents,'' Bess said.

Reflecting the sexism of the dominant white culture at the time, the 1792 structure allowed only men to vote; but Shinnecock women gained the right to vote more than a decade ago.

The tribal leaders said they anticipate further reforms, beginning with a change to the one-year term limit, the method of electing the chairman and even the names ''chairman'' and ''trustee.''

''I think the media may attach more significance to the term 'chairman' than our customs do. Our leaders were sachems. That stopped when they imposed the voting system on us in 1792,'' King said.

Gumbs said he would like to see the return of traditional titles.

''I refuse to call myself a trustee. It's a colonial term and it doesn't have any meaning in Indian country,'' Gumbs said.

''We're tribal leaders and that's what I go by, myself. It means much more than the term 'trustee' - that's not us at all,'' King said.

Bess said he thinks the tribe needs to go back ''to the old way. We had sagamores and sachems, and I really think we need to get back to a more traditional structure that also fits the modern-day needs of a democratic community.''

The election drew 223 tribal members, the highest turnout ever.

''The tribe was quite pleased. One of our tribal elders is blind and she was always uncomfortable going down the stairs at town hall. This was the first time she voted in years. She thought it was just great to bring the election home to the land and allow her to participate in our governance,'' King said.

The tribe notified the local public officials of the venue change and asked the town of Southampton to send the town clerk to record the vote, but the town refused, King said.

Both the tribe's lawyers and Native American Rights Fund attorney Mark Tilden said the tribe acted within its rights.

''The occurrence of the tribal elections on the reservation is an act of tribal sovereignty, an inherent sovereignty that predates the formation of the United States, the state of New York, the town of Southampton and the arrival of Europeans. It's a profound statement by the Shinnecock that they still govern their own affairs, as they always have. And it has always been their sovereign right to elect their tribal leaders as they see fit. It's what tribal sovereignty is all about,'' Tilden said.