Shinnecock History, An Introduction
We are the people of Shinnecock, Our name is an Algonquian word meaning “ stony place “ or “shore”. Shinnecock is located on the south fork of eastern Long Island. The people of Shinnecock are survivors. 10,000 of years have bought change to the environment. Hundreds of years have brought social change.
The indigenous people of Long Island were hunters, gatherers, and gardeners. They were also fisherman and whalers. The coastal environment provided shelter, clothing, food and medicine. Wigwams, wickiups and longhouses were housing structures built from sapling trees. These saplings were bent and tied together and covered with bark and reeds. Dugout canoes were made by burning, then scraping out large trees. An adze, a tool of wood and stone, was used for scraping. During the archaic period, hunters used spears, bows, arrows, and traps for capturing animals. An atlatl was a tool made from wood and stone. Animal meat provided food, while the skins and hides provided blankets, clothing, container, bags, and shields. Bones and antlers were used for tools. Hooves were used for rattles. Muscle tissues provided sinew that was used for sewing. Sinew was used to string bows and for attaching shells, rocks, and arrowheads. Just about every part of an animal was used. Hunting was not just for fun or sport. Roots from trees and plant fibers and stems were made into cordage and that rope was used for tying and making nets. Instruments, such as drums and rattles were made from animals, plants, and trees.
As maritime people, the Shinnecock, gathered their food from the sea. Fish and whales were caught using nets, spears, and harpoons made from bone or wood. Shellfish, such as clams, oysters, mussels, and crabs, were plentiful along the shore.
In 1640, the English first arrived at a location now known as Conscience Point. Shinnecock had lived on this land for thousands of years. They shared a portion of their land with the settlers, teaching them important survival skills. They did not know the English settlers would keep the land to themselves, without letting the Shinnecock hunt freely, fish and gather as they had always done. Our ancestors did not know that the settlers would bring new diseases like small pox which caused sickness and death. They had no way of knowing that the settlers would try and change their language, their rituals, and their way of life.
Eventually, the Shinnecock had to change much of their lifestyle to survive. Ancient skills, such as basket weaving, wampum making and whaling were adapted to meet the economic necessity of living with the English.
Baskets was woven from splints from trees, various reeds and grasses. Baskets were used for carrying, storage and fishing. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, many Shinnecock made splint baskets, brooms and scrubs that were sold to local townspeople and businesses. Scrub brushes, used for cleaning pots and bowls were made from white oak tree branches.
Wampum beads, made from the quahog "clam" and whelk or conch shells were used as personal adornments, trading, sending messages and used during ceremonies. The wampum beads became a valuable trade resource and were in great demand.
Whales were an important resource as the Shinnecocks used them for food, medicine and ceremony. In the 1800’s, American whaling ships traveled all over the world to capture whales. Shinnecock men with seafaring skills were lured to work on whaling ships. The whale blubber or fat was turned into oil. This was used for lamp oil and was in great demand for lighting homes and businesses.
The colonial contact brought rapid change to the native people of the eastern seaboard. Introduction of foreign diseases caused catastrophic illness and death. Differences in language and culture including religion and philosophy of land ownership and lack of respect and understanding brought much conflict. There was inequitable compensation for work. For over 370 years (1640 to the present). Various land transactions, greatly reduced the Shinnecock Land. Many of these transactions took place illegally and with deception. The original territory ranged from Peconic Bay on the north to the Atlantic Ocean on the south. Eastern and western borders stretched from approximately the current day Eastport to Easthampton. These territories were determined by the relations with neighboring tribes, the Unkachogue in the west and the Montaukett to the east. By 1703, the Shinnecock territory was reduced to only about 5,300 acres. With the growth of Southampton Town and introduction of the Long Island Rail Road in 1859, the land base was further reduced to less than 1,000 acres by town and state actions. The United States Congress, as required by law, never ratified these transactions, thus again land was taken illegally.
Today, more than 500 Shinnecock live on our ancestral land, Shinnecock Nation Sovereign Territory is now known as the Shinnecock Indian Reservation. Hundreds of other Shinnecocks reside on other Native American territories, and in towns and cities throughout the United States and the world. Even today, we still fight to keep our land, working through the court system whenever there is intrusion upon our territory.
Just as our ancestors worked hard to survive from the land and water, the Shinnecock people work hard to live in two worlds in today’s society. Many Shinnecock still hunt, fish, farm, cook traditional foods, use ancient healing ways, and create art and crafts based on traditional methods. Yet, we live in modern houses and use all the modern technology, cars, clothing, food and medicine as does mainstream America.
In the 1840’s, the State of New York established a K - 8th grade one-room school on the reservation. Students were required to take a test to be attend Southampton High School. The school existed until the early 1950’s, afterwards the reservation children attended school in town. Some children attended boarding schools such as the Thomas Indian School, Carlisle Indian School and Hampton Institute. The educational programs did not just seek to give academic or vocational instruction to native students, but in many instances tried to destroy the cultural ways of the students.
Today our children attend public, private and religious schools while some students are home schooled. in 2014, the Wunnechanunk Early Childhood Center opened. Tribal members were very happy and proud to once again have a school on the reservation and to know that Shinnecock culture and language are incorporated in the curriculum.
We have the intergenerational Family Preservation Center that offers after school academic tutoring and cultural enrichment classes. Educational achievements bring opportunities for employment in all areas such as art, business, education, food, health, landscape, law, and retail, with many owning businesses or working for tribal programs.
The Family Preservation Center also provides space for our elders to gather for social and educational activities. The Senior Nutrition Program is also held there.
The Shinnecock Health Services were established to provide better access to medical and dental care. The NYS Department of Health, American Indian Health Program and the US Indian Heath Service provide services at the medical clinic on the Reservation.
The Shinnecock Nation in self-governing. Its offices are housed in the Shinnecock Community Center, which is also used for meetings, recreational activities, and social gatherings. Annual elections are held in April to vote for Tribal Trustees, who are the government officials. The trustee system of government was imposed upon our people by the New York State government in 1792.
The Shinnecock people are free to practice their religious beliefs. Some are members of the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church, the oldest National Missionary church on the United States. Shinnecocks are members of other churches and followers of other faiths, including those who practice Native prayer and ceremonial ways will also attend the reservation for special gatherings, some of which combine Native and Christian ways. The Parish Hall of the Church has also been used for tribal and community meetings.
The Annual Labor Day Weekend Powwow, sponsored by our Tribe and Church, is the major event of the year when the general public is invited. Held on the reservation, the Powwow welcomes visiting natives from all around the United States, Canada, Central and South American, and cultures come together for prayer and honoring, dancing and singing, and selling for native crafts and food. It is a homecoming for many, a time for renewing old ties, for others making new friends, are made while sharing customs and discussing the many indigenous people face today.
The Shinnecock Nation Culture Center and Museum was opened in 2001. It is the culmination of many years of dreams and hard work for tribal members to preserve the arts, artifacts, and photographs telling the history and contemporary life ways of our people as told by our people.
The Shinnecock people have survived, overcoming genocide, oppression and assimilation while maintaining the values and traditions of our ancestors.
It was not until 2010 that the United States government officially acknowledged the Shinnecock People.
~ Josephine Smith