By Emily Toy
Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation met with the Southampton Town Board last Thursday morning to discuss proposed legislation that would offer greater protection of Native American and historic gravesites.
"The idea of protection has been discussed since 2003," said Councilwoman Bridget Fleming. "I think we have a good sense of where we want to go."
Assistant Town Attorney Elizabeth Vail said the Shinnecock Indian burial grounds have been deemed "critical environmental areas." Under New York's State Environmental Quality Review Act, those critical areas would be triggered for review. New York is one of four states in the country that doesn't have gravesite protection legislation.
In 2009, Assistant Town Attorney Joe Burke presented a draft law entitled "Native American and Colonial Burial Site Protection," that didn't quite get off the ground because a map of said burial sites still needed to be drafted.
And since then, that has happened. Now the focus has grown, with the Shinnecock currently seeking legislation that articulates how to properly alert private property owners of where the burial sites are. It would go a step beyond simply relying on a detailed map.
"We now need the property owners to be aware and we need them to take it seriously," Fleming said. "We need to notify code enforcement and have an educational campaign, because there doesn't seem to be any existing protocol about what to do if property is on or near sacred ground."
Chief Harry Wallace, of the Unkechaug Nation, said that an educational process and/or outreach is not enough.
"Uncovering a body is one of those things that really halts the process," he said. "I think giving a due notice requirement of permitting may be more educational. Since New York State has no law about disturbing graves as a crime, that's why we're trying to get this legislation passed."
Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said she wanted this to be "understood by every land-dealing department," and also said she would offer a memorializing resolution" to stop any confusion."
"We've got a map. We've got a list of sacred sites, most of them are coastal," said Fleming. "But we're living in a vacuum in terms of what protocol is when sacred ground is discovered."
Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato added that it would be in the best interest of the town to get a broader sense of protocol.
"You would want it to go on a greater scale to include private properties," she said.
"An educational process and outreach is important," said Nation member David Collins. "And even more so, it's so important on the local level."
Wallace stressed the need for the town and the Nation to work together in the upcoming months to try to get this resolved.
"It can happen if we work together," he said. "We have an opportunity to show that these things can be worked out."