Cultural Heritage and Sacred Sites: World Heritage from an Indigenous Perspective 15 May 2002 - New York University

Presentation by Marguerite Smith (Excerpts -transcript by Marie-Danielle Samuel from audiotape) Marguerite Smith is a lawyer and resides on the Shinnecock Reservation in New York State

A Shinnecock Hills Case Study

We have a lot to learn from all of you, all over the world, and we thank you at the United Nations for your efforts, we have a lot to learn in terms of the need to organize, the need to be even more determined now because I would say that there was a time when perhaps that many of the peoples did not have proper education, did not believe they had the tools to assert the claims which they felt in their hearts. I was told when I finished law school "Now go get the hills, go get the return of the Shinnecock Hills".

Many days I feel I am loosing that battle, many days I know that it's all the more important to do so. So, a moment like this, a few hours together, reenergizes and causes one to look deeper and look broader for the tools, the alliances, the resources with which the Hills will be reclaimed for us and for the world. ………………/…………. I was raised Christian. Christians came with the English settlers in 1640. The Shinnecock Presbyterian church prides itself on being the oldest continuous, reformed congregation as they say, in the United States, if not all of North America. First place where they came and yet Vine de Loria writes in one of his books, he has a little script there, on how the Shinnecoks got presbyterianized "almost".

And it is that "almost" which is most important to our conversation at this time. It is that almost that lets us know that even when we sing a particular hymn, we are singing it in a broader way, our concept of creator and our concept of the sacredness of all creation is far different that what we know that many of the parishioners sitting in another set of pews might think.

I will speak briefly about Shinnecock Hills and a recent case which on the law books right now still stands as a loss but which perhaps has marked a reenergizing of activities across generations and also across communities of interest outside of the reservation. We hear about open space a lot, again we are talking eastern Long Island, we are talking about a highly populated playground, not where people expect to find a rare marine communities, and rare plant communities, and yet those rare plant communities that our people knew as medicine gathering places and some of our people still do.

How do we fight today for return of the Hills - one way, in the United States, some of you may know, we have this process called federal recognition. It is a bureaucratic, under funded, long drawn out process, it is demeaning and demoralizing as a process, it is invasive of families secrets and of communities secrets. You might as well be asking for card carrying but federal acknowledgement is one of the processes that many of the Indigenous communities in first contact point on the East coast and also some on the West coast find themselves going through. So that's one way that the knowledge of our life in Shinnecock Hills will be re-established

In1703, with the representatives of the Crown of England, some arrangements were made and certain areas of land were reserved to us allegedly. So perhaps peoples settled down, we are taught to share and ownership to us was surely an alien concept but stewardship was a different kind of concept…if you are on the land, you are going to take care of it, so in 1703, what was really known of what this agreement would mean…that's before there were the United States. When the state of NY, the United States were formed, that land was still known as Shinnecock, stretching from Shinnecock Hills unto Shinnecock Bay, almost to the ocean. For our area, a large parcel of land…land where my people stopped and began their wampum making. We are the wampum makers….

My mom checked me out today…well you are not going to wear buckskin and moccasins but wear your wampum…show who you are. In 1859, plans for railroad going…we lost the Shinnecock Hills. We just did not lose land, we lost heritage, we lost places where our peoples are buried. You know that famous Shinnecock Hills Golf Course, they know where the burial grounds are on the golf course, the archaeologists can tell them… They moved a hole once because Oh! this was getting dangerous…Perhaps even they understood the power of playing on sacred lands. The prayer places remain, the special habitats remain. We hear a lot about biological diversity, we hear a lot about open spaces…sometimes it's easier to talk about those aspects than to talk about the meaning, the interconnection of those places to the traditional peoples and easier to ignore what knowledge they know, what importance they know about those special species places.

After 1859, we still had a little portion of land in which we lived. And for a long time, there was a lot of open space, so our people continued to walk the Hills. People were still aware that the Hills were still ours in our heart.

 In 1997, a fellow just plumped down his house on the reservation and someplace half way thru the case, we did win this one, he decided to tell us that he had Indian heritage too. Not necessarily validated.  He certainly did not approach the community in a proper way.

While we are moving this person off, we find that applications are going on in the town for another guy, a developer, who not only wanted to build a big development, but wanted truly to change the history, he wanted to call it Parrish Ponds. Now who was Parrish? There was a big Parrish family and at least one of the Parrishes, as I understand it, someone who had in fact in the 30's established a house, a bon vivant, someone who enjoyed his life greatly, but this developer had no connection with Parrish…He simply decided that it was a good name for it and that he was going to make a pond. There was no ponds in the Hills, but he was going to change the physical contour, the whole environment and the name. And as so many others had done, he endeavored to erase the memory that our people hold.

When our people took information quietly, they thought they were being received respectfully but what they were being, was ignored. When archeological studies were presented, when archaeological comments were made, the developer was told to give us a study. The developer gave a very shabby study. When the people laid down in protest, the police and the bulldozers came. So by the time we were in court, the bulldozers were already there and the bulldozers had begun the destruction. And the court said "too late !!" Now I relate back to this question of federal recognition process in the United States because many of the Indigenous peoples in the US do obtain some protection for their sacred sites, some backing for their land protection claims thru being "federally recognized". But without that status, the native peoples are on their own and our claim to sacred sites, our claim to land sacred or not, our claim to traditional cultural usage do not have the same status in the courts of the States or the United States.

So the people are drawn into a political arena, even while their fight is one of culture, one of cultural practice or for religious practice, for life way. The two battles go on.

The importance of some of the work you're talking about here is the importance of being able to lift up your sacred places, lift up the importance of these cultural ways, lift up traditional knowledge, regardless of the political circumstances.

While this federal acknowledgement process continues, lands are lost…

The environmentalists actually did join our battle and that was good…

But it is the importance of an international declaration declaring the importance of these rights and creating a new environment which does not exist in the United States for respecting these practices. It is really important to open the eyes and the understanding of those others with whom we may work sometimes in partnership. It is an educational project…..

The Shinnecock Hills case goes on…not in the courts right now except for a side case…Recognizing the tools and recognizing the different ways that the assertion of claims must be made has been lifted up in the community in a new and important way…

The Shinnecock Hills matter goes on…Those of you who live in New York, I hope that you will find a way to be of assistance even if that assistance means voting concerning environmental protection laws that do not adequately address our cultural sites…

That is the kind of change we need in the external environment even as we become more energized as people who realize how rapidly we are losing ground.

Thank you.



Members | Opening Session | Interviews and Statements
 Media Resources and Events | Inclusion | Case Studies | Join the Global Dialogue


Nations to Nations Legend