In places across the United States, native people have long pressed for the return — or at least a share — of the land from which they were forcibly removed. That took on a new, local twist in July, when some 200 Shinnecock and their supporters rallied at Cooper’s Beach in Southampton Village to point out the obvious contradiction that they were expected to pay a $500 “nonresident” fee per vehicle for parking to visit beaches that had been stolen from them in the first place. Tela Troge, a member of the Shinnecock Nation and native-law attorney, made the point that the Shinnecocks had never given up their rights to use the ocean and beaches. So far, the Southampton Village board has not responded meaningfully.
In our own region, the exclusionary practices began almost immediately after the mostly English colonists moved in under cover of deeds and other written agreements foreign to the original inhabitants. In East Hampton, among the first laws the town trustees passed involved limiting native people’s rights. They forbade anyone from selling gunpowder or dogs to the Montauketts, ordered them to fill in the pits in which they stored grain, and even barred their men from entering the white settlements. That was in the 1650s; similar laws were in place almost a decade earlier in Southampton and Southold. The list of wrongs done to the native people here could fill many pages.
East Hampton Town and Village could leap ahead of Southampton by swiftly giving beach parking permits to enrolled members of the Shinnecocks and Montauketts. They would not be the first to do so, however; there have already been several moves like this elsewhere in the Northeast. In March, the Truro, Mass., Select Board voted unanimously to waive beach fire and parking fees for the Wampanoag and members of any other Native American groups. Officials in Rhode Island have also agreed to free seasonal beach passes for anyone with a valid identification card from the Narragansett Indian Tribe.
It only adds to the sense of exploitation that local governments make millions of dollars a year from selling permits to people who do not live in the area while denying access to the original residents. Descendants of the first colonists enjoy free parking, so why not grant the same to the groups who were here all along? We would be curious to hear what the objections might be.
The native people of the Americas have endured centuries of economic exclusion, and discriminatory practices and eradication efforts at the hands of whites. Faced with these truths, there can be no valid objections to the small step of removing the barriers to their use of what is rightly their own land.