As Native American Heritage Month continues, the Shinnecock Indian Nation will describe their struggle to protect their ancestral and burial lands in a new PBS Independent Lens documentary, “Conscience Point,” which premieres tonight (November 18). The nation resides on a reservation in The Hamptons, New York, an area synonymous with golf courses and multimillion-dollar properties.
“As Native people, you feel a responsibility to your ancestral territory to protect the land as much as we can,” American Indian Movement advocate Rebecca Hill-Genia said in the film. “Its nearly impossible in this day and age, but we’re still gonna do the best we can.” Conscience Point is the site where Shinnecock ancestors met the first European settlers.
Directed by Treva Wurmfeld, who summered in The Hamptons as a child, the film follows Hill-Genia and her long-standing battle over The Hamptons’ continual destruction of Shinnecock sacred burial grounds for mansions and marquee attractions. This film highlights the debate over who has rights to the land. “Some people say, ‘My family has been here four, five, six generations,’ well, we’ve been here 400 generations plus,” Hill-Genia said.
The documentary gathers perspectives from a land developer, local officials, Shinnecock members and longtime fishermen and farmers who blame the developers and summer-vacationers for the destruction of the Shinnecock Bay’s ecological system. The changes to the environment are then compounded by the extreme wealth gap. “In 1640 when the first settlers arrived, we gave them eight square miles of land to use which is now current day South Hampton Village and we’ve paid the price for it ever since,” said Lance Gumbs, Shinnecock tribal trustee. “Here we sit in the middle of the lifestyle of the rich and famous and yet 60 percent of our people in our community are below the poverty level. That’s a problem.”
The other problem that looms largely in this film is the blatant disrespect felt by the Indigenous people. Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, for example, was carved out of a sacred burial ground and uses a Shinnecock image in its logo, yet refuses to allow Shinnecock members access to the land. “This land was stolen from us,” Gumbs said. “Flat out, hands down, no questions, stolen.” Small victories are won, though the film showed that even those came with a price.