A wooden staff wrapped in cloth and adorned with feathers, sage leaves, and bags of tobacco and cedar loomed at edge of a partially excavated lot at 10 Hawthorne Road in Shinnecock Hills Saturday morning, August 18. As a small group of Shinnecock Indian Nation tribal members gathered at the site, crime scene tape flapped in the breeze, and the bucket of a digger was buried in the soil from when the call to halt was last given. Then, Rebecca Genia burnt a bundle of sage, moving her hand in the air to clear the air of negative energy.
“The staff represents the connection between us and the creator, the physical world and the spiritual world,” said Genia, a graves protection warrior and member of the tribe’s Inter-tribal Preservation Task Force, in an interview after the ceremony. The tobacco provides guidance, wisdom, and love; the feathers, a space for good energy; and sage cleanses.
“It’s almost like putting something out into the universe and seeing what positivity comes back. That is why we burn the sage — to clear any of the negativity,” said Genia, adding, cedar will help the spirits “find their way.”
A skull and a blue glass flask — believed to be 300 years old — unearthed by a digger excavating the soil of the undeveloped lot on Monday, August 13, caused the tribe concern an ancestor had been disturbed. It prompted discussion about preserving the property.
“It doesn’t matter to us. These are our sacred hills,” said Genia, noting that regardless lab of test results, whether the remains are that of a Native-American or a European settler, they should be honored. “We have a bond and we are going to respect that bond,” she added.
Genia said the sage cleansing will be repeated at the site because of all the negative energy that has accumulated over the past 100 years or so. The tribe lost much of its ancestral lands across the south shore of Southampton in a bad land deal in 1859. Much of what the tribe considered sacred land has been developed over the years, most notably Shinnecock Hills Golf Club nearby.
The remains, including the skull and what appeared to be a femur, were reported to the tribe, which has a reservation about five minutes away, almost immediately by the builder. Then, members notified Southampton Town Police. But, tribal members say the Suffolk County Police Homicide Squad detectives who were called in to investigate — a standard protocol when human remains are found — were less than gentle with their handling of the scene.
“It was clear it was not a crime scene, even to a rookie,” said Tribal Trustee Lance Gumbs, noting that the skull looked very old. At least three investigators were standing in the excavation area using various implements, including shovels, rakes, and sifters. “For anyone who has done any archaeological digging, this is a no-no,” he added.
Gumbs said he had gone to the scene, which, he says, is close to another area where a burial ground was previously found, after receiving a call from other tribal members. He asked the police to stop. However, he was informed by investigators that they could not oblige him until they determined the area was not a crime scene.
Southampton Town Police Lieutenant Susan Ralph declined to comment, citing protocol that the county’s homicide squad, which investigates all unattended deaths, had taken over the investigation. A Suffolk police spokeswoman said detectives are waiting on a determination from the Suffolk County Office of the Medical Examiner as to whether or not foul play was involved in the person’s death and also if the remains will be analyzed for their historical value. She was unable to say if the department had consulted with the tribe about the find.
In a statement released by its Public Information Section, the agency had this to say: “When police arrived, portions of the remains had been excavated by construction machinery. There was no option to preserve the remains as they had already been inadvertently disturbed. The determination was made to collect all parts of the remains to properly examine them in a laboratory setting.”
An anthropologist from the Office of the medical examiner’s office examined the remains at the lab and made a “preliminary determination” that they had been buried at the site for at least 50 years, according to a police spokeswoman.
Preliminary findings by a forensic anthropologist were inconclusive because, while Native American characteristics were identified in the remains, so were Caucasian characteristics. Other factors, such as missing teeth and part of the skull’s facial bones, and roots growing in the bones, made a definitive determination difficult, according to Gumbs. An anthropologist from the state Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation has now been called in to consult on the remains, which appear to be male, and will also examine which way the bones were facing at the time of burial, he said.
An inquiry to Medical Examiner Michael Caplan was not answered by deadline. The ethnicity of the remains has not been determined, according to a Suffolk police.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman spent an hour and a half at the site Wednesday morning meeting with Gumbs and other members of the tribe, as well as the site’s builder and Chief Building Inspector Michael Benincasa. “There are a lot of unanswered questions at this point,” Schneiderman said.
Once a determination is made regarding the ethnicity of the person who was buried at the site, there will be a clearer picture as to what will happen with the property, whether construction will resume, or whether it will be halted and the remains reinterred there, according to Schneiderman.
An option for the property is preservation using Community Preservation Fund money because the site could be deemed “culturally significant,” as in a similar case where the property was preserved in Bridgehampton, Schneiderman explained. An archaeologist will now have to examine the site to determine if it is a “lone burial or a burial site,” he said.
“I cannot rule out preservation,” said Schneiderman, adding the remains could be a European settler, a Native American, or a person with both heritages.
In a letter to Schneiderman state park office unit coordinator Nancy Herter recommended all construction on the project be halted until it is determined if there are any other remains on the property.
“The high number of indigenous archeological sites near Hawthorne Road, as well as the glass bottle found, suggest that the remains are Native American. Glass bottles, like the one recovered, have been found at other indigenous burials on Long Island. I would encourage the town to consult with the Shinnecock Nation on any archaeological studies the Town of Southampton may require and on the repatriation of the human remains,” Herter wrote in the August 16 letter.
Excavation at the construction site has halted since the discovery.
“Out of respect — you can’t just plow over someone. It’s the right thing to do,” said Southampton builder Michael White, whose business partner owns the land.
Workers from KB Building of Southampton were digging a foundation for a house when the bones appeared from underneath the soil at about 1 PM, according to White. He then notified members of the tribe to come down to the site because he has a good relationship with them, he added.
“[The bones] fell out of the upper dirt. The body was probably about four or five feet deep in the ground,” he said, speculating about the original burial.
White willingly stopped construction in order to obtain more information about how to proceed. “It’s somebody’s remains,” he added. He believes the town should consider preserving the property under the CPF, whether or not the remains are determined Native American.
Archaeologist Jo-Ann McClean, who viewed the site with the tribe on Saturday, said she was on hand to advise what the next steps would be for the tribe. If the site is determined a Shinnecock grave site, the tribe has to decide whether to take the dig further, or to preserve the site without further disturbing it, she said.
“As a pseudo-scientist, I want more information, but it’s not my call,” she said.
The Shinnecock originally wanted to obtain a court injunction to stop the disturbance of the site, but that notion was dropped and plans are now to wait on the medical examiner’s final determination, Gumbs said.
“We are going to determine where to go from there,” he added.