Southampton Town takes new stance on tribe

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While the Shinnecock Indian Nation took another step forward this week in its bid to be listed as a federally recognized tribe, the Southampton Town Board appears to have some division in its opinion on the matter.

The split on the board is due to the fact that once the tribe is recognized by the federal government—something that all parties agree will, in fact, eventually happen—it could open a gaming facility on the East End, a project that the town has vehemently opposed for several years. Though they recognize the concerns of the town, Shinnecock leaders stress that they require federal recognition in order to qualify for certain grants and financial assistance to fund essential tribal programs.

Town Board member Anna Throne-Holst recently said she would support federal recognition of the tribe and the financial assistance that would accompany it, though Town Supervisor Linda Kabot said on Tuesday that board policy has not changed and no resolution to support federal recognition has been made.

The Shinnecocks will go before a federal judge in Islip at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, April 18, to make their case against the U.S. Department of the Interior, which they claim is keeping the nation from being added to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ list of federally recognized tribes, despite voluminous documentation proving their tribal heritage and a 2005 decision by U.S. District Judge Thomas C. Platt determining them eligible to become recognized. Southampton Town opted not to appeal Judge Platt’s decision, and will not be able to do so in the future as the deadline passed earlier this month.

Separating the two issues of gaming and recognition would be a step in the right direction for the town, according to Shinnecock Senior Trustee Lance Gumbs, who said he and the tribe’s board of trustees have met with town officials to discuss the matter. He explained that after years of tension between the Shinnecock Indian Nation and the town, a dialogue is now open and both sides could be on the road to understanding one another.

In an e-mail last week, Ms. Throne-Holst said: “It is this Town Board’s intention to work alongside the tribe to address issues of concern and help foster positive relations and communication.” Speaking personally, Ms. Throne-Holst said she stands firm that a casino is “absolutely ill-suited for this already much-too-developed, traffic-congested and environmentally fragile area.” But she clearly separated the issues.

“I support the tribe in its quest to achieve federal tribal recognition and welcome the much-needed support this would grant the tribe,” she said, noting that her goal is for the town and the tribe “to work together to reach a mutually satisfactory set of goals in achieving much-needed economic development for the Shinnecocks.”

Ms. Kabot said the two issues are intertwined and the town cannot support federal acknowledgement of the Shinnecocks because it would be willingly inviting a casino to be constructed in Southampton, despite a slew of zoning and environmental issues that should preclude it from being built. However, the town could not prevent the Shinnecocks from constructing a gaming facility on tribal lands if they secure federal recognition because their land is not subject to local zoning.

Mr. Gumbs said that gaming aside, making the federal list would allow the long-impoverished Shinnecock Indian Nation to receive funding for road improvements, housing, law enforcement, a fire department, education and health care. “It’s a whole list of things that the tribe would be eligible for,” he said.

Mr. Gumbs acknowledged that getting on the federal list would also make gaming an option, but added, “They are not the same issue.”

The senior tribal trustee said past assertions that the Shinnecocks are only seeking recognition to achieve gaming rights are “hurtful to the tribe,” noting that it had originally filed for federal recognition in 1978, 10 years before Indian gaming even existed as a possibility. Since gaming was presented as a financial opportunity for the tribe, “We’ve become public enemy number one,” Mr. Gumbs said.

The Town of Southampton has filed for “interested party status” with the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, positioning the board to be notified of the application processing timeline, decisions and other matters relating to the Shinnecocks’ quest for recognition, Ms. Kabot explained. Even with all the proper documentation, federal acknowledgement can take more than a decade and the Shinnecock Indian Nation is not at the top of the BIA’s list of tribes to consider.

“The town offers assistance to the Shinnecocks in its current status as a state-recognized tribal government,” Ms. Kabot explained, standing by Judge Platt’s decision in a recent e-mail. Ms. Kabot said she is leading a new administration that offers respect to the Shinnecocks, but was careful to point out that state recognition and federal recognition are two different things, and only federally recognized tribes may pursue gaming.

The Shinnecocks’ lawsuit reads quite differently from Ms. Kabot’s opinion, and cites the Federally Recognized Indian Tribe List Act of 1994, which maintains that federal acknowledgement can come from the Department of the Interior, an act of Congress or a federal court decision, the latter of which the tribe says is exactly what Judge Platt handed down in 2005. “We feel the Department of the Interior is not enforcing the rules,” Mr. Gumbs said. “They’re making their own interpretation of the law.”

The Shinnecocks claim to have strong evidence to suggest that the tribe was recognized 1914, and confirmed in 1929. The tribe remained listed until the 1950s, when the federal status seemed to disappear.

Mr. Gumbs said that with 18,000 to 20,000 pages of documentation, the Shinnecock Indian Nation is “probably one of the most well-documented historical tribes” and recognition delays are “more about the process than the heritage.” He said federal acknowledgement will eventually happen.

“It’s not an if, it’s a when,” Mr. Gumbs said. “Anyone in their right mind [who] thinks it’s not going to happen is fooling themselves.”

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