For centuries, ‘the three sisters’ have been a staple in Indigenous diets throughout North America. The combination of corn, beans and squash, and how they are planted, varies dependent upon the region. While it was the Haudenosaunee who first coined the term ‘three sisters’, it was at my Shinnecock great-grandmother’s kitchen table, where I sat eating ‘Three Sister Stew,’ that I first learned of their existence. Corn, beans and squash were regarded as sisters because the three played beautifully off of one another, both in the ground and the saucepan. Back then, however, I did not know why the three sisters were used, learning much later of their nutritional value and their soil replenishing power as a triumvirate. Instead, like so many of my great-grandmother’s lessons, I was taught the how long before I learned the why. She was 95 years old when she passed in 2013 and I believe her focus on how can be attributed to her belonging to a generation that lacked the luxury of contemplation.
Being able to trace one’s lineage for generations is not a feat most Americans can easily accomplish. For Native American populations, however, ‘the seventh generation’ is a prominent phrase that holds regard for both those who preceded us and for those who will follow in our stead. When the generations of Native American ancestry you seek to honor reside in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country, however, your relationship with your hometown can become distorted.
When I tell people that I’m from the Hamptons, I’m typically met with shock. It is rare, to those not acquainted with the area, to see Southampton as the place of someone’s origin story. When I tell them I live on a reservation in Southampton, their jaws drop a little further. Even for those who have lived here for years, incorporating the tribe into local events has been done crudely and sparingly. Although the village of Southampton was founded in 1640, the Shinnecock Nation has called the East End home for thousands of years. Still, little is spoken about the relevance of the East End in the broader historical spectrum. When examined, we see how much of the relationship between the tribe and surrounding communities has just been a reinforcement of century-old practices.
When the first Englishman arrived in what is now known as Southampton, it was not done with the intention of seeking religious freedom, but rather as an opportunity for investment. In his book The Algonquian Peoples of Long Island, historian and educator John Strong illustrates Southampton’s early struggles. The King of England, he notes, had given large swaths of “New World” territory over to those he deemed loyal to the crown.The Earl of Sterling was among the King’s favorites and, as a result, received all of Long Island to distribute at his leisure. However, the task of designating that land fell on the shoulders of the Earl’s trusted agent, James Farret. Unfortunately for Farret, much of the land was occupied. With the Dutch staking claim on the west end of the Island, and indigenous populations living throughout the Island’s entirety, securing property in the name of the crown became Farret’s biggest priority. The first men who arrived here were investors from Lynn, Massachusetts who were given explicit instruction to encroach on Dutch and Indian property as much as possible, further securing both their and the crown’s stake on the territory.
For nearly 400 years, according to Strong, the same five strategies were utilized to divorce the Native population from their territory: 1.) Find or create a puppet sachem; 2.) Confuse and seduce with alcohol; 3.) Intimidate by armed force; 4.) Harass with continual pressures from the private sector; 5.) Force into debt and take land as payment. These strategies, reimagined and reimplemented over the centuries, have served as the basis for the relationship between settlers on the East End and the Island’s indigenous population.
With this at the heart of the region’s origin story, unpacking racism on the East End can be an arduous task. When one does so, however, the same five tactics listed above are used yet again (they have been used with such frequency throughout the centuries that it has now become second nature). Efforts to reject our claim as a tribal nation are older than the United States itself. And now, nearly four hundred years after those inchoate encounters, the above five tactics continue to erode both our territory and our esteem. How many centuries can one be expected to hear they don’t matter, before they start believing it themselves?
Prior to 2020, talking about race on the East End had been viewed as gouache. There were certain conversations that were best left out of polite company—with ‘polite company’ being a euphemism for those who don’t have to consider race (be it someones else’s or their own) to navigate their daily interactions. The racism that I experienced growing up was rarely overt. I credit that, however, to reinforced socioeconomic barriers, intentionally built, that did the ugly job of excluding people of color from entering some of the East End’s most coveted circles. Segregation was able to occur without anyone getting their hands dirty.
As a member of the Shinnecock tribe, with African American lineage, who attended white private schools her entire life, navigating concepts of identity has always been tricky terrain. My survival depended on acceptance from three contrasting communities, and success in these three communities wasn’t always guaranteed.
Whenever I do stand up, I make the joke, “However many identity crises you think I’ve had, double it.” Standing at the intersection of these three demographics was rarely easy. At times, I was too white for the black kids, too black for the white kids, or embraced by the white kids but only with the quiet (and sometimes audible) recognition that I wasn’t “like the others”. For years, my presence buffered many families from their own bigoted views. How could they be racist with me as a friend? While I truly believe these friendships were sincere, sincerity gets watered down when it’s served with a side of microaggressions.
Attendance at Our Lady of the Hamptons and then the Ross School granted me access normally denied to people with my complexion. The proximity to whiteness I gained from admission to these academies has offered me nepotistic advantages that have propelled my career. I like to say that although I couldn’t register for “white privilege”, I was able to audit the course. The adjacency I had to the 1-percent and their progeny was a unique result of the area in which I was raised. I was welcomed into many friends’ families with open arms. As a person of color from a low income family, however, I was taught to be grateful that I was admitted into the room. But once in those rooms, I noticed that the door would quickly slam behind me. I’ve since made it my mission to open as many windows as I can.
I never set out to be an activist. In fact, I always shied away from the word. It always denoted, to me, a level of authority that I felt too insecure to claim. An activist had a certain number of rallies under their belt, had petitioned for a specified number of campaigns, and ate vegan—intentionally. I fell under none of those categories. When I gave an impassioned speech at a George Floyd Vigil in Southampton earlier this year, it was because my mother informed me I would be speaking. One’s claim to activism is truncated when their motivation is: “My mother made me do it.”
The George Floyd vigil, however, marked a shift in me. While I am still reluctant to use the word activist, I now view myself as activated. The shift from noun to verb is seemingly small, but it’s one that puts responsibility on the actions rather than the actor. 2020 has been a year that activated many of us, yet what that activation looks like varies from person to person. For me, it’s using my art to bring awareness to the Shinnecock Nation, and to reflect on the human condition through various means of storytelling. When we share our stories, we offer people the opportunity to gaze into a world outside of their own purview. In a country that is becoming increasingly polarized, this opportunity becomes even more imperative.
“I hear there aren’t any REAL Indians up there anyway.” From the 18th century to today, some iteration of this sentiment has been spoken about the Shinnecock tribe. The lens of resiliency the tribe has displayed over the centuries is also displaced by the fact that we still reside on coveted land. Headlines declaring the last Shinnecock dead have been featured in periodicals throughout the ages. How many times does the last Shinnecock have to be proclaimed dead before it’s believed indefinitely?
The analogy that I have come up with to make people most readily understand the plight of the many nations of Native Americans in this country is to think of Earth being invaded by space aliens. (Not the direction you thought this story would go in, but bear with me). In this alternate universe example, every country has been invaded by space aliens, and each responds by their own accord. Although everyone is from another country, they are all decidedly human, dealing with the fact that they are no longer in charge of the lands of which, for thousands of years, they have been the sole stewards. The resulting question—“How long could humans still claim their humanity?”—frames both the absurdity and severity of the situation when we apply it back to the Shinnecock, and all of the tribal people indigenous to this continent.
The idea of the Hamptons has become bigger than the Hamptons itself. As the number of low income, mid-range houses evaporate and the number of communities of color diminish, we see that the maintenance of the notion of ‘the Hamptons’ comes at a great cost. The Shinnecock Nation sits on coveted territory. As Covid-19 has caused an influx in full time residents living on the East End, property values have only continued to rise. We are well aware of the value of the pristine acreage in our possession. As such, the question that every Shinnecock secretly, and often vocally, asks is: “How long do we have before this is taken away, as well?” The erosion of our territory has been steady over the last 400 years and we’ve watched helplessly as it slipped away, like the sands of our shore through our fingers. The grief surrounding that level of loss is a generational trauma tribal members carry to this day.
In June of 2020, The Shinnecock Healing Hoof Prints program began. Six horses, a mini-pony, mule, and donkey have now joined the nation. Varying circumstances and traumas have led them here. Their addition returns a significant energy that has been missing. Our healing is occurring simultaneously, but there is much healing still to be done.
My relationship with my hometown remains increasingly complex. While it makes up a huge component of who I am, its rapid transformation can, at times, be unnerving. Yet 2020 has reinforced the resiliency that I have in myself, Shinnecock, and the community that comprises this unique location. I would be remiss to exclude the allies who helped me get to this point. Countless people have contributed to the development of my voice and my debt and gratitude to them is immense. It would be easy, here, to ask the question of why. Why is it that I have been granted the opportunity to speak my voice when so many others are denied the same chance? Rather than answer, I have chosen to take a recipe from my great grandmother’s cookbook and recognize that sometimes, the how is more important than the why.