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Tue, 02.08.1600

Black History, and the Shinnecock Indian Nation, a story

*Black History and the Shinnecock Indian Nation are celebrated on this date in 1600. 

The Shinnecock is a federally recognized tribe of historically Algonquian-speaking Native Americans based at the eastern end of Long Island, New York. Despite having documented history since the 1700s, their roots go even further back. Since the mid-19th century, the tribe's land base is the Shinnecock Reservation within the geographic boundaries of the Town of Southampton. Their name roughly translates into English as "people of the stony shore."

The Shinnecock were among the thirteen Indian bands loosely based on kinship on Long Island, which was named by their geographic locations, but the people were highly decentralized. The most common pattern of indigenous life on Long Island before their economic and cultural destruction and some enslavement by white Europeans was the autonomous village linked by kinship to its neighbors. They were related and politically subject to the Pequot and Narragansett, the more powerful Algonquian tribes of southern New England across Long Island Sound.

The Shinnecock are believed to have spoken a dialect of Mohegan Pequot Montauk, like their neighbors, the Montaukett on Long Island. As with many Northeastern tribes after the establishment of reservations, the Shinnecock language was not allowed to be spoken in schools, and its use was highly frowned upon off the reservation. This caused a decline in the number of people who spoke the language; however, the tribe is actively engaged in language renewal programs to secure the legacy of the language for future generations. The bands in the western part of Long Island were Lenape (Delaware), such as the Matinecock and Patchogue. Also, part of the large Algonquian language family, these Lenape spoke a Delaware Munsee dialect, one of three of their people.

They shared a longhouse social system with their people, located in a territory that extended through the mid-Atlantic area, from western Connecticut, the lower Hudson River Valley, present-day New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. Like the other Native peoples of Long Island, the Shinnecock made wampumpeag (wampum), shell beads strung onto threads that were used as currency, for record-keeping, for aesthetic purposes, and to symbolize a family. These shell beads have been found at Native American-inhabited sites as far west as the Rocky Mountains, showing their value in trade. Although other New England tribes produced wampumpeag, the Indians of Long Island are reputed to have made the best. Paumanok, one of the many names given to Long Island, means "land of tribute." The tribe was subject to raids by the Pequot and other New England tribes to control this valuable trade commodity.

The whites quickly learned the value of the Shinnecock wampumpeag in trade with other tribes. Cockenoe, a Montaukett/Shinnecock captured during the Pequot War in 1637, worked with John Eliot in Boston in the 1640s to translate the first parts of the Eliot Indian Bible before returning to Long Island. Native American populations on Long Island declined dramatically after European colonization due mostly to vulnerability to the new infectious diseases carried by whites, to which they had no immunity.

In 1658 a smallpox epidemic caused the deaths of nearly two-thirds of the Indians on the island. In addition, their communities were disrupted by land encroachment by Dutch and English colonists; they had to shift from hunting and fishing to horticulture. By 1741, estimates are that only 400 Native Americans in total survived. In 1641, English colonists signed a lease with the Shinnecock Indians. In 1703, this was ratified to include more land for English colonists. In 1792, New York passed a law reorganizing the Shinnecock Indian Tribe as a trusteeship. The law also established annual elections for three tribal trustees, which have continued from 1792 to the present.

From their beginning, the Shinnecock were at home on the water, long being fishermen and sailors around the island. The commercial whaling fishery in the United States is thought to have begun in the 1650s with a series of contracts between Southampton resident white settlers John Ogden, John Cooper, and the Shinnecock Indians. The English settlers were primarily farmers at that time with very little experience on the seas. The Indians had expertise in seamanship and whale hunting, which were necessary to commercialize the industry known as ye whale design.

The skill of the hunters directly impacted the number of whales harvested in a season. As a result, Shinnecock men were often contracted by the whaling company months in advance and for years. This arrangement was wildly successful, and the whale fishery was soon seen all over New England. So valued were the Indian fisherman that in 1708 the governor made a law stating, “Indians under indenture to whaling companies could not be arrested, molested, or detained in any way from November first to April fifteenth.”  This version of whale fishing continued with Indian contract labor until at least 1746.

After the American Revolutionary War, a few Shinnecock left Long Island to join the Brothertown Indians in western New York, where the Oneida people gave them some land on their reservation. (By the mid-19th century, the Shinnecock and Brothertown were pushed out of New York and migrated to Wisconsin.) On Long Island, some Shinnecock intermarried with local colonists and African slaves, who worked on farms and as craftsmen. They reared their children as Shinnecock, maintaining their identity and culture.

The whaling industry declined sharply in the mid-1700s. Whales were no longer found near shore in abundance. The hunt for whales went worldwide, and the Shinnecock were still very valued within the industry well into the 1800s. Notably, on April 18, 1845, aboard the whaling vessel the Manhattan, a Shinnecock Indian named Eleazar became the first Native American to enter Japanese territory, anchoring in Tokyo Bay. Through the 19th century, Shinnecock men worked as fishermen and sailors on the whaling ships based at Sag Harbor and other local ports, much like the African Chanteys further south near Virginia. It was said that no ship left Eastern Long Island without at least 1 Shinnecock male on board. In December 1876, ten Shinnecock men died while trying to save a ship stranded off East Hampton. The tribe is famous in local lore for such heroic efforts.

At the start of the 20th century, the Shinnecock were described as "daring seamen" and "furnishing efficient recruits to the United States Life Saving Service" (Coast Guard). Every Labor Day Weekend since 1946, the reservation hosts a powwow based on ceremonies beginning in 1912. The Shinnecock Powwow is ranked by USA Today as one of the ten great powwows held in the United States. In 2008 the powwow attracted 50,000 visitors. The Shinnecock, Montauk, and Unkechaug developed tribal systems to deal with external forces; the Shinnecock depended on their trustees to manage some relations with white farmers in the 18th century and other jurisdictions in contemporary times.

The Shinnecock people in the 21st century number a little over 1,400 people, with 662 residing on the reservation. Though it’s hard to pinpoint what an exact Native looks like, it’s no doubt that many Shinnecock people are black, a product of African slaves and Native Americans intermarrying and producing offspring in the times of slavery. According to the US government census of the reservation, 13.6 percent of the population consider themselves black or black and American Indian, while 88.2 percent consider themselves American Indian. This tribe is headquartered in Suffolk County, on the southeastern shore. The trustees have managed the tribe's land and resources for more than two centuries. In the fall of 2010, the Shinnecock gained federal recognition.

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