"At these events we lift up the “plight, fight and insight” of the poor and dispossessed." 

- Rev. West McNeill, from Labor Religion Coalition and The New York State Poor People's Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival

On October 11, 2021 - Indigenous People’s Day - more than 350 people gathered virtually to hear testimony from Shinnecock leaders on the impact of the intersecting evils of poverty, systemic racism, environmental devastation, militarism/colonialism, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism, as well as how the community is organizing in response.


“Land Back And The Third Reconstruction” was the first in a series of Truth Commission events that the Labor-Religion Coalition of NYS is holding across the state over the coming year, in collaboration with the Poor People’s Campaign and other partners.


Truth Commissions - and similar events where directly impacted people speak for ourselves about our conditions and our demands - have been an important tool that has been used for decades by the network of organizations now taking up the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. 


At these events we lift up the “plight, fight and insight” of the poor and dispossessed - in other words, not only highlighting the pain and injustice we experience, but also the ways that people on the front lines of poverty, racism, militarism and ecological devastation are resisting, organizing, and coming up with solutions to our problems. In this report we highlight some of the key themes that emerged related to the “plight, fight and insight” of the Shinnecock..


"We have yet to hear and walk through truth together."

- Rev. Holly Haile Thompson, from the Shinnecock Nation and The New York State Poor People's Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival

“We have yet to hear and walk through truth together,” Rev. Holly Haile Thompson of the Shinnecock Nation declared during the Land Back and Third Reconstruction event held by the Labor and Religion Coalition, Padoquohan Medicine Lodge; Kairos Center for Rights, Religions and Social Justice; and the New York State Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival on Indigenous People’s Day, 2021. Shinnecock Nation ancestral land in the Hamptons is some of the most expensive real estate in the United States. However, to the Shinnecock it is impossible to put a monetary value on this sacred coastal region that supported and sustained them for thousands of years. 


The disparities between the rich and poor where Shinnecock territory is located on Long Island  are staggering. The median household yearly income of Southampton is over $99K, while the average income on the reservation in 2020 prior to Covid-19 was under $24K, and the median yearly income in households headed by women on the reservation in 2019 was estimated at $13K. When using the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), 66% of the Shinnecock people live below the poverty line. Yet the FPL is an inadequate and outdated measurement of poverty in the United States, as groups like the Poor People’s Campaign have shown.

This means that the number of Shinnecock people unable to meet their basic needs is much higher. Tela Troge, a Shinnecock tribal member who also serves as their legal counsel, described horrible living conditions that the Shinnecock face from living on swamp land. Black mold grows in homes on the reservation and people have died in the winter due to the cold, while just miles away people live in abundant wealth on what was once Shinnecock land. 

The numbers of shellfish and other marine life that were a staple of the Nation are declining in the waters off Long Island. Runoff from lawns and golf courses, and a wastewater system that is overburdened by droves of New Yorkers who fled to Suffolk county during the Covid-19 pandemic, threatens the ecosystem of the bays. Becky Genia, a Shinnecock activist who has been fighting with the local government for decades, recalled the sense of sacred community that showed strongly in the Standing Rock demonstrations against the Tar Sands Pipeline. “People came together and laughed and cried, and suffered and celebrated together for a common cause, and that’s how we feel here in our ancestral territory. This spirit of alliances that’s getting built up again; we need each other. All these beautiful brown, white, red and yellow people, we’re human beings. We’ve got to fix this together.” Jennifer Cuffee-Wilson, a founding member of the Warriors of the Sunrise, a group of Shinnecock women, calls on all of us to speak up. “Don’t be afraid. Speak up because that’s the only way anything is going to change.”

1 US Census Bureau

2 Shinnecock Tribal Office data

3 US Census Bureau

4 Shinnecock Tribal Office data

"You cannot talk about eradicating poverty until you tell the truth about the evil things done under the doctrine of discovery."

- Rev. Dr. William Barber II, co-chair Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival

"We are hoping that our children won't have to go through the same struggles, that we can bend the arc of justice now, so that future generations don't have to go through this.”

- Tela Troge, from the Shinnecock Nation and co-chair of the Niamuck Land Foundation, Inc.

Shinnecock territory was colonized in the seventeenth century and their territory shrunk through violent means and onerous land dealings until 1869 when Shinnecock Hills, an area of intrinsic value to them, was stolen. This area is now home to the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course, which has hosted five PGA U.S. Open tournaments. An untold number of Shinnecock graves have been desecrated by developers as their territory has shrunk from what it was prior to colonization. Before the first Europeans arrived on an isthmus named Conscience Point in 1640, Shinnecock territory encompassed 146 miles which could support their way of life. It is now diminished to 1.3 miles located in swampy terrain on the Shinnecock Bay. One hundred years after the theft of Shinnecock Hills, the state of New York violated the Nonintercourse Act, granting itself an illegal easement for the construction of Sunrise Highway on Shinnecock land. 


The fight to survive in a system that has exploited the Shinnecock and created conditions of poverty has required ingenuity. One recent example is the construction of two electronic monuments on Shinnecock ancestral land adjacent to Sunrise Highway in Southampton. These monuments - erected over a two-year period beginning in 2019 - provide critical revenue for elder and childcare for the nation, since their traditional means of survival have been eradicated due to over development and forced removal from their lands. 


Additionally, these monuments have provided Covid-19 information to the broader community since the start of the pandemic. New York Governor Kathy Hochul and state Attorney General Letitia James are continuing with a lawsuit initially brought against the Shinnecock by the Cuomo administration, citing permit violations for the monuments. This lawsuit is a direct attack on Shinnecock sovereignty on their own land. Hochul’s issue of a proclamation making Indigenous People’s Day an official state holiday is an act of blatant hypocrisy which tokenizes the Shinnecock and other indigenous nations around the state. Where are the policy changes that would create equitable conditions for the Shinnecock and transfer their land back to them?

Ways To Take Action

"We're doing everything we can to take care of each other but we need your help. And so, so there's a couple of ways to help... "

- Tela Troge, co-chair of the Niamuck Land Foundation, Inc.

Tela Troge co-chair of the Niamuck Land Foundation invited us all to get involved in the fight! Below are several ways to take action including donating to the Niamuck Land Trust Fund, following the work of Warriors of the Sunrise, hosting a screening of the film CONCIOUS POINT, and more. Tela continues, "We are working diligently not only to protect our ancestors, but to protect the living too, and not only make sure that we not have enough to survive but hopefully more than that, so we can thrive and succeed. We’re hoping that our children won't have to go through the same struggles, that we can bend the arc of justice now, so that future generations don't have to go through this.”


"We remember and we demand."

- Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival

In Arizona the San Carlos Apache are currently fighting to protect their sacred land, Oak Flat, from the multinational corporation, Resolution Copper. Battles being fought for the truth, repair and correction by the Apache in Arizona are fundamentally connected to the battles being fought by the Shinnecock in Long Island, New York. The interlocking injustices that impact Indigenous people cannot be fully addressed until we look at the origin of these injustices and how it continues to impact the poor and dispossessed today. “You cannot talk about eradicating poverty until you tell the evil things done under the Doctrine of Discovery - how it worked, and how it continues to fuel immoral understanding,” asserted Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, A National Call for Moral Revival during the Land Back event. We have to walk through this truth together, and only as a unified mass movement can we begin to tear apart these interlocking injustices that bound all of us. 


The Shinnecock have reclaimed through the preservation of language and culture what colonialism sought to take away from them. Sugar Kelp is being cultivated off the waters of Shinnecock territory by Shinnecock women with the help of the organization, Green Wave. This native species of kelp extracts nitrogen from the water thus combating the pollution from industrial and residential fertilizer runoff, while providing nutritious food and revenue. Fighting the tools of oppression and stitching their community together the Shinnecock have survived despite the attempts of empire to destroy their very existence. “We have always been here and we are still here,” affirmed Becky Genia. Even amid the ways the Shinnecock were dehumanized they maintained their humanity and are continuing to fight. The alliances that are being built across that which divides will lift everyone up. This uplifting must begin with facing the truth that was spoken about throughout this powerful Truth Commission event. 


There can be no justice for the Shinnecock without an acknowledgement of what has been done to them. “Some folks just want to talk about correction, but it must be about reparations; repair and correction,” stressed Rev. Barber. This repair and correction must come from standing up and facing the truth of the very foundations of this nation. Corporate greed over human need has sought to separate us from one another. This greed has aimed to set a wedge between communities  of the poor and dispossessed, and thwart efforts to build a mass movement wherein we face these ugly truths and build a future in which everyone can thrive.


Join us for our next truth commission.