A struggle in the Shinnecock Hills over the remains of native people points to the absence in New York State of effective protection of important cultural sites. Earlier this month protesters gathered in the Sugar Loaf Hill area to draw attention to land clearing for a new house in a place Shinnecocks know had been favored by their forebears as a burial ground. Heightening their concern, previous excavation nearby had exposed remains believed to be Shinnecock.
In the earlier case, the Town of Southampton was able to buy the property using its community preservation fund. So far, a deal has yet to be reached for the new site. But this issue is much larger than two pieces of property. Eastern Long Island has been home to native people for at least 10,000 years. This means traces of their lives could be preserved in the soil almost anywhere. Unfortunately, the legal protections in the state, even of human skeletal remains, are inadequate.
United States law requires Indian cultural items and burials on federal lands to be properly dealt with. The Native American Graves Protection and Reparation Act, approved in 1990, established procedures for returning materials to descendants and culturally affiliated tribal organizations. However, state and private lands are not covered. Nonetheless, institutions, such as museums, that receive federal funding mostly comply with the law.
States other than New York have a range of approaches to native remains. Florida recently amended its rules concerning burials to include those inadvertently discovered on public and private land. The first step is to immediately stop work and notify local law enforcement. Next, state-authorized experts in identification are called in to determine, when possible, the cultural importance of the site. California has a similar law, which mandates that Native American tribes in the area be notified as soon as potentially significant burials are discovered. Massachusetts has rules on the preservation of Indian skeletal remains, and so on. New York has clearly lagged behind in this respect.
Treating the remains of the continent’s original people with due respect does not mean archaeological study is derailed. In one fascinating example from Alaska, contemporary Athabascans agreed to allow DNA sequencing of bones of an infant girl who died about 11,500 years ago whose remains had been uncovered near their community. The results were stunning, leading to a previously unknown branch of Native Americans. In addition, the site where she was found turned out to have the oldest known evidence of salmon fishing in North America, a tradition on which many Athabascans rely to this day.
This was celebrated as proof that non-native researchers have more to gain then to lose by involving native people in the work. This should not be limited to the graves of indigenous people. Burials of the poor and enslaved were often unmarked and their locations forgotten. These deserve respect and proper treatment as well.
The Shinnecock Indian Nation is doing significant work in pushing for the protection of graves. More people on the South Fork are starting to notice. It is a call that Albany lawmakers should hear as well.