The Shinnecocks demand free access to Cooper’s Beach in Southampton
Nearly 200 members and supporters of the Shinnecock Nation tribe gathered at Cooper’s Beach in Southampton on Saturday, demanding that the board grant members free access to the beach that tribesmen have used for centuries.
The Shinnecock tribe, which means “people of the stony shore”, have lived on eastern Long Island for approximately 10,000 years. Despite their roots in Southampton and the importance of beach access to their tribe, they must pay $500 a year to the Village of Southampton for a non-resident parking pass at Cooper’s Beach – a requirement the members and allies condemn.
Shinnecock Reserve borders the village and is about a 3.5 mile walk from Cooper’s Beach.
“We have called this place our home since time immemorial,” said Tela Troge, a member and lawyer who focuses on land rights issues. “We welcomed the first settlers here on the beach, and yet we are denied access to the ocean…Indigenous peoples are stewards of the land, and we must be allowed access to our sacred spaces, which include the ocean.”
Matthew Ballard, who is Shinnecock, Montaukett and Unkechaug, called the land the ancestral territory of the tribe. Ballard spoke of the tribe’s expertise in whaling, which members eventually taught settlers when they arrived in the 1640s. Settlers hunted whales on the brink of extinction. Many tribesmen died as a result, Ballard said.
“We dont do [expletive] owe you money,” he told the crowd, speaking into a megaphone. “You owe us.”
Saturday’s protest was the latest in a series of attempts by the tribe to regain free access to beaches. Troge said an effort took place in 2016 after a tribesman was ticketed for parking at Cooper’s Beach.
She told Newsday that tribal members “have done a lot of advocacy to try to find a solution with the village so that all tribal members can have free access. They attended many meetings, but the effort came to nothing.
Troge said she had more recently contacted the mayor of the village of Southampton, Jesse Warren, in an attempt to work out an access agreement, but had not heard from him.
Warren said on Sunday he had been in communication with members of the Shinnecock tribe to find a solution regarding beach access and noted that tribe members can get parking stickers for $250 less than the $500 pass for non-residents. He said he may have a partial resolution later this week.
The Shinnecocks once collected annual rents from homes on tribal land on Meadow Lane facing the ocean, Troge said.
Now tribal members want the village to recognize a tribal ID card for free access to Cooper’s Beach, or provide free access stickers to members who request them. It costs $50 to enter the beach daily, or $500 for the annual pass.
“We are trying to find a creative solution with the village,” Troge said.
“My invitation to work on this with the mayor was completely ignored,” she said. “There has been no progress at all. That is the reason for our direct action.
As it stands, tribe members who park on the Cooper’s Beach lot are ticketed, although the village court has routinely dismissed violations when members appear in court to fight them, Troge said. She said she was unsure of the reasons for the layoffs, but many members are losing a day’s pay to fight the tickets. An appeal to the Southampton Village court was not dismissed.
The issue of tribal access has arisen elsewhere.
In May, the Narragansett City Council in Rhode Island approved a measure giving the 3,000 members of the Narragansett Indian tribe free access to the city’s beaches.
For hours of testimony, the tribesmen maintained that the beach was homeland. The measure passed by a 3-2 vote. Tribal members still have to pay parking fees, but no longer pay a $12 access fee, according to reports.
Troge argued that Shinnecocks never waived access to Cooper’s Beach.
“We still have beach rights,” she said. “We have reserved rights.”
With John Roca