Indigenous movements for water protection exclaim “Water is Life!” Meanwhile, the dominant culture treats the coastline like a dump for wastewater and stormwater runoff. Overdevelopment on land combined with inefficient septic systems leads to nutrient overloads that cause coastal ecosystem collapse. Here on Long Island, nitrogen pollution from sewage and fertilizers frequently promote harmful algal blooms that result in oxygen-starved, dead zones and fish kills.
The shellfish industry in Peconic Estuary and Shinnecock Bay have been particularly hard hit. The Department of Commerce recently declared a “fisheries disaster” when over 95 percent of adult scallops were declared dead in a mass die off in Peconic Bay. Long Island’s $6 billion clamming industry has experienced a 93 percent reduction in harvests in the past 25 years, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. These fish kills have disproportionately affected the Shinnecock nation, who made a living as skilled fisher people, clammers and whalers for over 13,000 years on Long Island.
Once proud stewards of what is now Southampton Town, the Shinnecock understand the reciprocal relationship between humans and the living world and never take more than nature can afford. Historically, they lived a life of communal abundance. Then in 1859, the Shinnecocks were forcibly relocated to 800 acres of swamp-land. With 1,700 registered members, 70 percent of the Shinnecock people now live beneath poverty lines on a reservation that’s located in one of North America’s wealthiest Zip Codes.
The Covid pandemic has exacerbated the disparity between rich and poor in the region with a recent influx of wealthy city dwellers adding to pollution and raising property prices. Shinnecock activist Becky Hill-Genia exclaims in the documentary “Conscience Point” that “there was no such thing as poverty before 1640. We took care of each other.”
The rivers of environmental and social activism meet in this watershed moment of climate justice. Due to broken treaties and forced relocation, our land’s original caretakers live in the most vulnerable regions worst affected by the consequences of climate change. Coastal communities are particularly susceptible to climate disruption and Shinnecock activists are rising with renewed urgency to reclaim their ancestral territory and return balance to the living world.
Resilient, spirited and resourceful, Shinnecock have fought for the return of their land for centuries and just recently experienced real community support, especially from environmental conservation groups that are helping raise funds to return their stolen land. On July 22, 2021, the hard work of the Shinnecock Graves Protection Warrior Society paid off when they acquired the summit of Sugar Loaf Hill in Shinnecock Hills.
Giving land back to indigenous people who follow their ancestral, original instruction as stewards of land and sea translates into rewilding of biodiverse habitats to native plants, shrubs and trees. This in turn ensures healthy life in the bay.
Exciting innovation worth celebrating includes a multi-generation collective of six Shinnecock women who are cleaning up the bay while laying the groundwork for green jobs in the area. They founded a regenerative aquaculture co-operative called Shinnecock Kelp Farmers (follow them on Instagram @shinnecockkelpfarmers). In partnership with the Sisters of Saint Joseph and Connecticut-based Greenwave ocean farmers they recently seeded the first indigenous-owned kelp hatchery in the Northeast.
Traditionally, sugar kelp has been used as food, medicine, insulation and natural fertilizer by natives. The benefits of growing sugar kelp along the coastline are many-fold, but importantly, kelp removes excess nitrogen as well as sequestering carbon and helps revive dead zones.
Shinnecock attorney, tribal member and activist Tela Troge said in a recent conversation with Felicity Broennan in Women of Algae that with this kelp co-op they aim to create sustainable jobs for their people. They plan to harvest and sell the kelp for use as fertilizer and therefore reduce runoff into the bay. Kelp farms also offer coastline protection from erosion by protecting against storm surges while creating conditions for shellfish to thrive, further purifying the waters.
Indigenous-led land management is a powerful solution to the climate crisis. Native Americans lived in harmony with land and sea for thousands of years prior to colonization. It is possible to re-create both economic and ecological balance. Give land back to the people who know how to care for it and as a result life on land and sea will be restored to health and sustained prosperity.
You can support the Shinnecock land back movement with a tax deductible donation to the Shinnecock Land Acquisition and Stewardship Fund at Peconic Land Trust or donate and join as a member of the newly formed Niamuck Land Foundation, Inc. http://www.niamucklandtrust.org. This is the perfect holiday gift this gift-giving season. The raised funds go towards rehabilitation and rewilding of reclaimed land and to further education on Shinnecock culture and history, while supporting their community. To learn more about the Shinnecock’s fight for land back please watch “Conscience Point,” a PBS featured documentary by Treva Wurmfeld. Kelp is on the way!