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December 03, 2010

LIMBA Recap – December 3, 2010. The Shinnecock Indian Nation

This morning we held our LIMBA gathering in the beautifully arranged ballroom of the  MacArthur Holiday Inn to a near overflowing crowd.  Michelle Zere of Zere Real Estate was the main coordinating force behind one of the most significant meetings in LIMBA history today.  One of the oldest self-governing Native American tribes and the newest Federally recognized tribe came to us to discuss its culture, history, and plans around its newly recognized status.  As the meeting gathered, we were treated to lively holiday music by Mark Seratoff of Marken Music.

The meeting opened with the pledge of allegiance to the US flag, and the sovereign nation contributed a benediction by a reading of the Lord’s prayer accompanied with a native dance by artist and tribe member Edith Wharton Collins.  This was followed by a drum and dance performance from Gordell Wright (drum and vocals), Miss Teen Shinnecock Autumn Rose Williams, a student at the Ross School, and Miss Junior Teen Shinnecock, Mattah Wright, a Southampton Intermediate School student.  After their performance, the ladies most elegantly introduced themselves in Algonquian and English.

Before the main remarks by Senior Trustee Lance Gumbs, a ten-minute video was shown illustrating the tribe’s history, some of its culture, and its modern economic history, including attempts to foster industry on the reservation, from aquaculture to paint manufacture.  An account of its current main revenue source, the annual labor day Powwow was included.  A highly professional production, it provided a preface to Trustee Gumbs’s talk on Indian Gaming and can be viewed at the Nation’s website.

Trustee Gumbs opened his talk by explaining the meaning of the word Shinnecock.  It is translated into English as “level land”.  As is well known, this level land has not been a level playing field for Native Americans since 1640, the first time the Shinnecock encountered European explorers entering Peconic Bay.  The nation has been an unknown quantity for the most part, surviving in substandard conditions while surrounded by great wealth and hemmed into a 900 acre reservation.

The nation has survived by engaging in many businesses.  They were the earliest whalers and manufacturers of wampum currency.  The first mint on Long Island, as it were.  In 1792, New York State imposed a governing structure on the nation.  This Board of Trustees has had annual elections each year for 218 years, making it one of the oldest self-governing tribes in the US.  Ironically, after such a long documented history of governance, the nation had to battle thirty-two years before finally being granted Federal recognition as an “official” Native American tribe.

What Federal recognition conveys is access to federal programs and the right to operate Indian gaming.  Trustee Gumbs had kind words for President Richard Nixon and his efforts to improve the lot of Native Americans, providing them more access to resources and creating the Indian gaming industry.  This opened a line of discussion regarding many misconceptions about what gaming does for tribes and how it affects the surrounding communities.

Across the United States, there are vast disparities in the physical resources that tribes control and have access to.  The Pine Ridge reservation encompasses 3 million acres, compared to the Shinnecock’s 900.  After much analysis and many attempts at industrialization, the space, land and finance picture for the Shinnecock all point to Indian gaming as a way to improve the future of the tribe.  The 2000 census put 60% of the Shinnecock nation below the poverty level.  The recent rainouts of the Pow-wow, the main source of revenue for the nation’s government and development programs, focused the leadership on moving forward with gaming.  Trustee Gumbs and Trustee Barre Hamp went through an exhaustive presentation of the economic benefits and regulatory environment surrounding  Indian gaming.  Indian gaming is also regulated very differently from the gambling environments of Las Vegas and Atlantic City.  The resources generated by Indian gaming are regulated as to how they can be used and distributed, unlike the large corporately owned Vegas and AC casinos.

A very strong case was made for the economic benefits of Indian gaming to both the Shinnecock and Long Island and New York State.  There were at least ten elected officials and staff members in attendance hearing this message at the town, county and federal levels.  The concerns around massive traffic jams were addressed and alleviated, and the nation’s commitment to place a gaming facility where it is welcome was heard.  Their determination to succeed in this effort was also firmly demonstrated and supported by the audience.

Once again it was another educational opportunity to be at LIMBA meeting with a chance to learn more about Long Island culture and our neighbors that have toiled in relative obscurity for many years.  Being able to get beyond the short stories in the print media and sound bites on television was invaluable.  Please join us for these Friday morning sessions that finish the work week off on a high note and never fail to be a great experience.

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