Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation visited Town Hall on Tuesday to support the town’s plans to purchase and preserve 9.3 acres of land in Water Mill considered sacred by the tribe.
The town is considering buying the Montauk Highway site of the former St. James Hotel from Greg Konner of Konner Construction, using $5 million of Community Preservation Fund revenue.
In December 2006, a human skull was unearthed on the property, signalling that the site was likely an ancient Native American burial ground. After the Suffolk County medical examiner authenticated the skull as Native American, it was returned to the tribe for proper re-burial.
Though the town has not settled on any official design for the site, Town Supervisor Linda Kabot said a passive park might be created with trail heads containing information on the property’s historical significance. Ms. Kabot said she respected the importance of the property to the Shinnecock Nation and added that its members’ concerns “would not fall on deaf ears.”
Representatives from the Nation said they supported the acquisition of the property because they considered it hallowed ground due to the fact that remains were discovered there. Rebecca Genia, president of the tribe’s Historic Preservation Task Force, reminded the Town Board that life in Southampton did not begin in 1640 with the arrival of the pilgrims from Europe. “Our ancestors were living here in harmony with nature for thousands of years before your arrival,” she said. “Their graves are spread out all over this country and have been developed over with no regard.”
Ms. Genia asked the board to make preserving consecrated lands a top priority by passing grave protection laws so as not to further desecrate the resting places of their ancestors.
She suggested that various tragedies that have taken place near the property—suicides, drownings and car accidents, she said—were the result of bad karma created when the graves were disturbed. She added that she, along with the members of the Town Board, were chosen by “the Great Spirit” to remedy the situation. “Karma can be good or bad,” she said. “Help Southampton be a good place again by stopping all development on this blessed site.”
Lisa Votino-Tarrant of Hampton Bays, whose husband is of Native American descent, urged the Town Board to adopt grave protection as well. “Other than our marriage, nothing is more sacred to my husband than the remains of his ancestors,” Ms. Votino-Tarrant said. “We must do something to protect the original people of Southampton.”
Tony Ernst, a Southampton activist, said measures to preserve the property—known to be an ancient fishing village as well as a burial ground—needed to be taken. “Too many historic and religious sites of our Native neighbors have been developed over and disrespected,” Mr. Ernst said. “We would never do that to the graves of our European ancestors.”
David Martine, director of the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum, said the town should preserve whatever archeological sites it could because they represented “just a remnant of our civilization, which has been here for thousands of years.”
Dr. John Strong, professor emeritus at the former Southampton College and a local expert on the tribe’s history, said he has spent the better part of his career studying the indigenous peoples of Southampton. “This is not just an important part of the Shinnecock heritage, but the entire heritage of the town,” he said.
Dr. Strong added that the human skull found on the property was likely not the only one. Archeologist Jo-Ann McLean, who excavated the property, said the skull was 3,000 years old, and the site was likely the home of an ancient Native American community.
The most haunting testimony came from Ruben Valdez, who said he looked into the eyes of the unearthed skull and thought about the life and fate of the man 3,000 years ago. Mr. Valdez said it was a privilege to return him to his original grave. Mr. Valdez said preserving the property was a way to help reverse what he said were the grievous faults of the past.
Tribal Elder Elizabeth Thunderbird Haile, the official designee of the tribe to the Town Board, said her ancestors were buried at the top of the hills facing east to the ocean: “We want them to remain at peace.”