On July 9, members of the Native American Shinnecock Nation and their allies held a protest to demand that the Southampton Village Board of Trustees give free beach access to tribal members. Tela Troge, a Shinnecock tribal attorney and director of the Shinnecock Kelp Farmers, sat down with Shades of Long Island to discuss the status of the ongoing fight for beach access.
Good afternoon, Tela! Can you give a brief summary of the history of the Shinnecock Nation on Long Island?
The Shinnecock Nation is one of 13 original native nations on Long Island. We are currently the only federally recognized nation. We spent 32 years and upwards of $52 million fighting the United States for that recognition. Our original ancestral territory spanned from what is now known as the town of Brookhaven, all the way to the town that is now known as East Hampton.
We have about 1,600 tribal members and two distinct tribal territories. One is Westwoods in Hampton Bays, the other is the Shinnecock Neck, which is adjacent to Southampton. In between those two parcels is the stolen Shinnecock Hills. The majority of our tribal members live on Shinnecock Neck.
As a member of the Shinnecock Nation, what issues are you advocating for?
It’s been since 1640 that we have lost our access to the ocean. Our land was stolen, we were enslaved by the settlers. It’s horrible. With all of these fraudulent land transactions, we lost access to the ocean. There’s really a climate of racial segregation that has been existent since 1640. It’s by design that a beach permit costs $500. I call it “artificial poverty.” There’s no reason that we are experiencing this poverty besides the fact that it was artificially imposed on us by those in power.
These billionaires and millionaires are living on stolen land. They’re leveraging that stolen land, getting mortgages and capital. They’re using that money to build businesses and pass wealth onto their children, while we suffer here in really inhumane conditions.
Wow, I never knew that all of this has been going on for centuries. How did the #BeachBack movement in particular start?
In 2016, one of our tribal members received a parking ticket for parking at the beach. She went to a number of meetings and hearings asking for a solution to this problem so that Shinnecock members could have access to the beach for whatever purposes. Whether it be cultural, spiritual or just a nice day at the beach like everybody else enjoys. It really got nowhere.
I was on social media one day and saw a news article about the town of Narragansett. They worked out a deal with the Narragansett tribe to allow enrolled Native Americans free access to the beach. I was really excited for them. It’s a really wonderful model.
I sent the news article to the mayor of the Village of Southampton. I invited him to work together with me to find a solution to this issue. We’re just pushing for equality and just a basic level of respect for the original stewards of this land.
What does this fight for beach access mean to you personally?
I just had a baby. He’s three months old. I want him to be able to go to the beach and go to the same place that his ancestors went to for 12,000 years. Why should my son be restricted? Why should his children be restricted? I’m on this mission to fix all these injustices so that hopefully by the time he grows up, he doesn’t have to deal with any of this. I want him to be able to go out and enjoy the things that he should be able to enjoy as someone who is ancestral to this place.
What has the response been from the Southampton Village Board of Trustees?
After my original email went unanswered, I started a letter writing campaign. Over 1,000 concerned citizens wrote letters into the village. I did get a response back from one village trustee. I’ve been in contact with them to try to work towards a solution since then, but nothing’s been finalized.
How does climate change play a role in the #BeachBack movement? I’m sure that has an impact on your community as the ocean plays such a vital role in the Shinnecock Nation.
We are a coastal, front-line community. We see the effects of climate change maybe more so than other folks. We’ve been put onto this little peninsula. We are surrounded on three sides by water and we are at or below sea level. The ocean is getting warmer. The sea level is rising. The water is polluted and we have excess nitrates from lack of municipal septic planning. We have too much carbon in the water, which is causing ocean acidification. We don’t have a lot of resources. There’s been a lot of studies that have shown that you can adapt and mitigate the climate crisis by restoring access to indigenous people, so there’s a clear link.
]For me personally, I’ve been doing a lot of work with the Shinnecock Kelp Farmers. We’re six independent, intergenerational indiginous women. We are all members of the Shinnecock Nation. We’ve been working to take action to mitigate some of those horrible things. But we’re not going to be able to help heal the planet and the water if we can’t access it. This is so critical.
A lot of people that want to help may not know where to start. Is there anything that people outside of the Shinnecock Nation could do?
Definitely! There is an action network letter campaign to send letters to the Southampton mayor and the village trustees. If you don’t live in the village of Southampton but you still want to help, you can contact your county legislators and ask them to find a way to give the Shinnecock Nation access to the beaches. The same thing for the Southampton Town Board. Send an email or a letter to them asking for them to find a way to restore access to Shinnecock tribal members. We are also asking to be put on the village of Southampton’s agenda to hold a public hearing on beach access. The more positive support at that hearing, the better.
Also I would highly recommend watching the 2019 film Conscience Point because that’s really when a lot of our effort became mainstream. After that film came out, we started to really be able to build our coalition of people who just couldn’t believe what they had watched in that movie. The injustice really came to light. The work that we’re doing is really to bend that arch of justice to us and restore all of the ancestral rights.
You can stay updated by following these accounts on Instagram:
Warriors of the Sunrise: @warriorsofthesunrise
Shinnecock Kelp Farmers: @shinnecockkelpfarmers