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Ten Thousand-Year Art Tradition of the Shinnecock People


Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2021/22 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, and the second of three posts by the authorthe third of which will be an email-only exhibition sent to all Hyperallergic subscribers on Sunday, February 17.

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The people of the Shinnecock Indian Nation of Eastern Long Island in New York State can trace their presence on their land back more than ten thousand years. Shinnecock’s claim is evident through Clovis Projectile Points from the Paleo-Indian Period (15,000–3,500 BCE). By 1000 BCE, Shinnecock people and other local tribal communities expressed themselves through clay pottery designs, wood sculptures, and wampum shell/bone beadwork. With the arrival of Europeans, Indigenous artisans incorporated richly colored cloth, glass beads, and blankets into their crafts and regalia. In the early 20th century, Shinnecock artisans loaded their wagons with baskets, caned chairs, beaded moccasins, embroidered table linens, eel traps, corn and herb mortars, duck decoys, wooden spoons, and scrub brushes, and sold them in nearby white communities.

Shinnecock Tribal Member Chenae Bullock wearing a wampum necklace and wampum earrings

For thousands of years, and hundreds of years after first contact, Shinnecock artisans and other local tribal communities were best known for their wampum manufacturing and jewelry making. Wampum is manufactured by harvesting and shaping clamshells found only along saltwater sources from New Jersey to the Canadian coastline. Wampum in the quantity of fathoms (approximately 360 beads) were used commonly in political, social, and economic exchanges. There were even instances of wampum being used to bargain ransoms, to pay off warring tribal groups with tributes, or as reparations for crimes committed between nations.

After 30 years of contact with European colonists, the demand for wampum waned, and the colonists came to value only Indigenous land and labor. By the 20th century, the historic trove of countless wampum beads, made individually by hand, were discarded — mistaken as gaudy jewelry, as Chief Harry Wallace of Unkechaug in modern-day Mastic Beach described during a public presentation at Guild Hall in 2021. 

Southampton Village Seal on a sidewalk trash can

Shinnecock’s continued presence as a sovereign nation has been slowly rendered invisible by neighbors in the Hamptons. Walking through the East End, residents and tourists can find the only acknowledgment of Shinnecock people on Southampton’s Village Seal, which depicts a sole Indian and a mass of Europeans arriving on their boats.

Following the first moment of contact in 1640, in which Shinnecock’s Sachem Nowedonah and other advisors greeted the English, Shinnecock people were understood as friendly neighbors and vital to European colonists’ early survival and industry. Building trust and friendship with the English quickly turned into the English swindling land from Shinnecock and other Indigenous communities on Long Island. Through deceit, insurmountable debt, threats of violence, and Shinnecock signature forgeries, the Shinnecock Nation alone illegally lost more than four thousand acres of its homeland. With the loss of land came the loss of natural resources, places to live, and means of survival.

Who benefits from rendering Shinnecock people invisible? From our disappearance?

Alice Osceola Bunn Martinez holding a basket she made as a young woman. Photo from John Strong’s The Algonquian Peoples of Long Island (image courtesy John Strong)

Since the early 1700s, colonists recognized the real estate potential of this idyllic landscape. The most familiar examples of land prospecting in the area were undertaken by Janet S. Hoyt, Samuel Parrish (who later founded the Parrish Art Museum), and William Merritt Chase, among many others. Shinnecock people stood in the way of their quick profit by our presence on our land.

This is why the arts are vital to our survival. We are defiant by sustaining our traditional storytelling, dance, beadwork, and wampum manufacturing, along with newer art forms, such as digital photography, videography, and painting, among many other mediums.

Print by Shinnecock artist Norman Smith of Montaukett Indian Stephen Taukus (Talkhouse) at Hildreth’s Whole Home Goods store on Main Street in Southampton

Despite constant hardships, Shinnecock people have prioritized cultural expression through the generations. Artists such as Charles Bunn, Wickham Hunter, Norman Smith, Edward Terry, Dennis King, and Chuck Herman Quinn have found employment and opportunities as they’ve carried on carving and beadwork traditions, and their artworks and names will live on forever in those objects. Later generations of Shinnecock artists, including Denise Silva-Dennis, David Bunn Martine, and Herbert Randall, have explored self-representation in the arts as a means to challenge the stereotypes and caricatures of Shinnecock people from pre-contact times to the present.

In recent years, Shinnecock artists have received support and recognition through programs such as the Gather series at Guild Hall and artwork acquisitions. The Parrish Art Museum, for example, now has two photos by artist and photographer Herbert Randall, though they were acquired decades after their original creation.

Shinnecock Cultural Center & Museum

For many years, Shinnecock art and cultural objects could be viewed at the Shinnecock Cultural Center & Museum, opened in 2001, on the reservation in Southampton — but the museum has been closed since 2017. The museum houses many oil painting murals by Shinnecock artist David Bunn Martine on permanent display. In addition to the museum, Southampton’s Rogers Memorial Library also features paintings by Martine. The lack of spaces showcasing Shinnecock art represents a need for new Indigenous-led art spaces and transformation in museum structures and collections to truly represent the East End community.

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