In the Hamptons, New York’s playground for the rich and famous, a Native American tribe grapples with the latest threat to what’s left of their ancestral lands: climate change.
The Shinnecock, whose name means “People of the Rocky Coast,” have lived on Long Island for 13,000 years.
Their villages stretched along the east end of the island before land grabs by European settlers and later US authorities reduced their territory to an 800-acre (1.25 sq mi) peninsula.
This low-lying land is now shrinking due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion, making it increasingly vulnerable to stronger storms.
“You’re looking at a situation where an entire nation of people who have essentially been here forever are faced with a devastating reality that we may have to move,” Tela Troge, a Shinnecock attorney, told AFP.
The Shinnecock Indian Nation is a self-governing, federally recognized tribe of approximately 1,600 members.
About half live on his reservation, which juts out into Shinnecock Bay next to Southampton, where multi-million dollar mansions stand behind electric gates.
Also next door is the hamlet of Shinnecock Hills and its famous namesake golf club, land the tribe say was stolen from them in 1859.
Warming temperatures are causing the seas to expand and rise, destroying the reserve’s coastline.
– flood –
Ed Terry, who makes traditional Shinnecock jewelry from seashells found on the beach, recalls that when he was a boy the sand moved out much further.
“You can see the erosion. Where there was land, there is now water. It’s like the sea is coming to us,” the 78-year-old told AFP as he sculpted a conch shell to be worn as earrings.
Some parts of the shoreline have already receded 45 meters, according to studies cited by Shavonne Smith, the nation’s environmental director.
She says 57 homes may soon need to be relocated and bodies may need to be exhumed from the tribe’s coastal cemetery and moved elsewhere.
“When you talk about taking a people who are so dependent on water – for spiritual health, recreation and sustenance – and now moving them further inland, you’re talking about a very big, stressful, emotional and dynamic shift in who we are are,” Smith told AFP.
The nation estimates that sea levels will rise by as much as 1.3 meters by the end of the century. Coupled with stronger storms, this would mean frequent devastating floods.
Hurricane Sandy provided a foretaste of 2012, washing away coastal cliffs, ripping off roofs and flooding basements and burial grounds.
“There are studies showing that by 2040 there is a 100 percent chance that the entire Shinnecock Nation region will be inundated by a storm,” said Scott Mandia, professor of climate change at Suffolk County Community College.
– ‘We will survive’ –
In an attempt to preserve its homeland and way of life, which includes fishing and farming, the nation is taking a nature-based approach to combating global warming.
It has built an oyster shell reef and placed boulders to try to hold back waves, and planted seaweed and marram grass to keep sand from moving.
Tribe members also contribute.
Troge, 35, is director of Shinnecock Kelp Farmers – a group of six indigenous women who harvest sugar kelp and sell it as non-chemical fertilizer.
The algae help clean up water pollution fueled by neighboring development by absorbing carbon and nitrates that cause toxic algal blooms that harm sea life.
Farmer Donna Collins-Smith wades waist-deep into the bay and says she was inspired by previous Shinnecock generations “and what they have preserved for us”.
“We’re keeping that and bringing it back from a near-dead state,” the 65-year-old told AFP.
Mandia, co-author of a book on sea-level rise, laments that marginalized communities “who are least responsible for climate change” are the ones “who will feel the pain the most.”
He applauds the tribe’s efforts but says they “only buy time” before their land becomes uninhabitable.
Terry, the seventy-year-old jeweler, wonders where the future Shinnecock will go now that the tribal lines are set.
“We don’t have higher ground,” he says.
Still, Terry adds, “We are a strong people. We will survive.”
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