In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Akwe, my name is Daniel S. Collins Sr., and I am the chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Council of Trustees.
Can you share with us your Shinnecock name?
My mother gave me the name Eagle Feather after birth.
Where is your community located?
The Shinnecock Indian Reservation is adjacent to the town of Southampton, on Long Island in New York.
Where are the Shinnecock people originally from?
The Shinnecock are referred to as the People of the Stony Shores. I believe that the air, land, and sea represent all that our bodies are made of. The air gives life, the land is a solid and forms the body, and water is the cycling process that sustains the body. All of these elements come together along the shore.
In a vision I had back sometime, I saw the waves rolling in onto the stony shores of Shinnecock. Each time the waves would break and begin to roll back out, a man and woman would evolve from the waves onto the shore. When the waves stopped, the shores were outlined as far as the eye could see east to west with beautiful brown-skinned human beings, known today as the Shinnecock, the People of the Stony Shores. Our people were put here by the Creator and have lived and survived here since time immemorial.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
First contact with early settlers sailing in to Conscious Point in 1640. The loss of ten Shinnecock men in the shipwreck of the Circassian in 1876. Most recently, I would have to say, our receiving federal recognition as the 565th Indian Nation, on October 1, 2010. These are just a few historical points, which outline how we have been here and our current-day status.
How is your tribal government set up?
Prior to December 2013, the government structure of the Shinnecock Nation consisted of a three-man Board of Trustees. The chairman was decided based upon who received the most votes. In December of 2013, we enacted the ratified Constitution of the Nation and a new Council of Trustees was elected consisting of a seven council members: chairman, vice chairman, treasurer, council secretary, General Council secretary, sachem (male elder), and sunksqua (female elder). The new Council of Trustees afforded the Shinnecock Nation the opportunity to elect two female councilors to serve for the first time in Shinnecock history.
The Shinnecock Indian Nation Council of Trustees, 2014. Left to right, back row: D. Taobi Silva, treasurer; Eugene Cuffee II, sachem; Bradden Smith Sr., vice chairman; Daniel S. Collins Sr., chairman, and Bryan Polite, Council of Trustees secretary. Front row: Nichol Dennis-Banks, General Council secretary; and Lucille Bosley, sunksqua. Photo by Beverly Jensen, courtesy of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
The sachem and sunksqua are members of the Council of Elders and provide spiritual guidance and act as peacekeepers.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
The last election was held in December. Until then, since 1792 the Shinnecock Nation held trustees elections every April on the first Tuesday. We are currently proposing staggered terms to ensure forward progress of the nation’s business endeavors with the newly elected and remaining trustees each year.
How often does your tribal council meet?
The Council of Trustees meets weekly. There is also a monthly meeting between the Council of Trustees and the General Council, which consist of all the enrolled community members. This is done to ensure community involvement and transparency.
What responsibilities do you have as a Shinnecock leader?
As a tribal leader, my role is to care for, defend, and protect the well being and safety of all tribal members, as well as all tribal property and assets. I'm also charged with maintaining current programs and resources while seeking additional resources that would improve upon the current process of working towards tribal self-sufficiency with no negative impact to our sovereignty. Public safety and cultural awareness are my major interests.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation?
First and foremost, the pride of being Shinnecock has always been the strength that guided me through all I have endured growing up until the present. Having the opportunity to move around the world in my younger days allowed for me to become very diverse and open-minded. My career in the military and in both municipal and tribal law enforcement exposed me to many situations involving people from many different backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs. Having held multiple leadership roles and positions throughout my entire career has grounded and prepared me well for the position to which I have been elected.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I have been afforded the opportunity to work with many great leaders and mentor figures. My grandfather, Chief Thunderbird, was a great man. He loved his people and culture. He instilled the pride of Shinnecock in all of his family and tribal members. He was a forgiving man and a great educator. He maintained and expressed his passion and pride of Shinnecock through his role as ceremonial chief each year of his adult life at our annual powwow. He is my inspirational and honorable mentor.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
How do you define a historic leader—one that makes the history books? The fact that the Shinnecock people have been here on our traditional lands since time immemorial speaks to our all being descendants of great leaders. I will take this opportunity to honor my father, Avery Dennis Sr., Chief Eagle Eye, for his twenty years of service as a former tribal trustee, and to honor all who served and stood for our great nation.
Approximately how many members are in your community?
Total membership of the Shinnecock Indian Nation is approximately 1,600 enrolled members.
What are the criteria to become a member?
Criteria for enrollment are outlined in our nation’s Enrollment Ordinance adopted by the General Council, which is in line with the federal recognition process.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Our people, the Shinnecock, lost the use of our language in the early days. It was deemed inappropriate by the settlers, and our ancestors actually were punished for using our language. After thirty years of research, today we are bringing our language back through language classes, and many of our adults and children who participate are able to speak in complete sentences. It is really inspiring and represents a true testament that we are not going away. We are regaining our strength and place here in our home, the woodlands and stony shores of eastern Long Island—Shinnecock USA.
What economic enterprises does your nation own?
The Shinnecock Nation recently initiated the pursuit of cigarette distribution, which would benefit the community by enhancing our education and health programs. We are pursuing several other potential economic endeavors, pending General Council input and approval.
What annual events does your community sponsor?
Our nation holds several events annually. For most of them, we extend invitations to our relative tribal nations and local guests. Annually we celebrate a fall Thanksgiving Nunnowa Feast (on the Thursday before national Thanksgiving Day) and a spring tribal gathering referred to as June Meeting (the first Sunday of June). Our main sponsored event is our powwow. For the past 68 years, we have gathered in celebration of the life and pride of Native America. This celebration brings together representatives from over five hundred tribal nations. It takes place on Labor Day weekend on our historic Powwow Grounds. We love our powwow!
The 67th Annual Shinnecock Powwow, 2013: Members of the Board of Trustees lead the Grand Entry. From left to right: Taobi Silva, Daniel S. Collins Sr., and Eugene Cuffee II. Photo by Beverly Jensen, courtesy of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.
What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?
The Shinnecock Indian Nation is home to the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum. The museum recently opened Wikun Village—an outdoor, traditional Shinnecock village—to offer physical education and the experience of the way we lived historically. The museum is open year round and is a must-see if you ever have a chance to visit.
How does your nation deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
We understand that the Shinnecock Indian Nation needs to be a neighbor in good faith with the surrounding communities and states, whose friendship we embrace. The U.S. government has a trust responsibility to all Native nations, and we hold them to that. Shinnecock has always been a sovereign nation. As the 565th federally recognized tribe, we honor the government-to-government relationship that has been established with the United States. We trust that the United States will provide the resources and protections as stated in all applicable federal laws, codes, and regulations. We honor all of our Native veterans and especially those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom under the U.S. flag.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
To our youth I say: Be proud of who you are, no matter where you are. Teach others about who you are and your culture and tradition. Have a dream and hold on to it; know that everything is possible and achievable. Respect yourself and your elders; learn from positive mentors and role models in your community and abroad. Always give back to your community by doing your part to develop the generations that follow. Always remember that you are loved and that you matter!
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like to thank you for affording me this honorable opportunity to share with you! Tabutne (thank you).