By Jordan Dresser
Sometimes, two people can look out of the same window and see two very different things.
This outlook sprang to my mind while watching Treva Wurmfeld’s Conscience Point, which tells the story of the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s fight to preserve and protect the land they call home in Long Island, New York. Relocated to an 800-acre reservation, their original migratory territory encompassed areas that now is famously known as the Hamptons.
The demands of real estate and development disturbed the land and is now home to million-dollar estates and private golf courses. Some hate it, which includes tribal members, fishers and farmers who deal with the negative impact of pollution, high cost of living, and most disturbingly, the unearthing of human bones. Developers, city officials and those who benefit from the income–including the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club which hosts the U.S. Open while contributing no income revenue to the Shinnecock tribe that bears their name and logo–praise the boom.
Shinnecock Tribal Citizen Rebecca Hill-Genia is a force of nature. For years, she has advocated for the return and protection of her ancestral homelands. In one scene she takes a walk and explains the significance of the land. The sky is blue. The leaves green. This is her home. This is her ancestors’ home.
Across the way, we meet Developer Joe Farrell. While driving his vehicle, he points out the homes he created and sold which includes a 15 million dollar mansion bought by a 29-year-old. With pride, he beams, “I like to turn things quickly. I call it the velocity of money.”
The film speaks about the power of land, repatriations and who controls history.
But most importantly, what does this mean for future generations?
For tribal communities, the battle over land is nothing new.
Colonizers will often make the remark when telling the history of tribal people that “no one owned the land.”
That isn’t true and is used as an argument to justify the taking of tribal land. Tribes went to war with each other when they crossed into the lands and areas they called home. It wasn’t just limited to the present day reservations where tribal people were relocated to.
Standing Rock, Standing Ground
Ancestral migratory homelands crossed hundreds of miles. Tribal people know this and this acknowledgment of the land is at the core of every disagreement with federal, state and local governments.
In 2016, indigenous people and water protectors from all over the world came together to fight against the expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The controversial pipeline would cut through the land that is considered sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Most importantly, leaks from the pipeline had the potential to pollute the water for residents that resided on the nearby reservation. Obama denied a key permit for the pipeline but that victory was short-lived as his successor reversed that decision and approved construction. Later, a federal judge blocked the project and asked for a study on its environmental impact.
In October (‘19), the Keystone Pipeline leaked an estimated 383,000 gallons of crude oil into North Dakota wetlands.
For all indigenous groups, the fight over land comes down to who has the right to see these sacred places.
Native Hawaiians believe only high-ranking chiefs and priests have the right to visit Mauna Kea, which is a dormant volcano. It’s a place of prayer. Astronomers think otherwise. Since the peak is 14,000 feet above sea level, it makes it a perfect spot to put a billion dollar telescope. A glimpse through it would show corners of the universe never seen before.
Since 2014, the project has been delayed with indigenous groups protesting its construction with the belief that they already visit the heavens. They don’t need a telescope to do so.
It’s the “highest point where land touches the sky — where the two deities, Sky Father and Earth Mother, meet,” said Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, in the LA Times.
The Right to Subsist
In 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty granted the Crow Tribe of Montana, “the right to hunt on the unoccupied lands of the United States so long as game may be found thereon, and as long as peace subsists among the whites and Indians on the borders of the hunting districts.”
In 2014, Crow Tribal Member Clayvin Herrera hunted in an area that crossed the Montana-Wyoming border. After killing three elk in the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming, Herrera was charged with violating Wyoming state hunting laws. Herrera appealed the case and won in the country’s highest court. The move was praised for upholding Treaty rights that have historically been ignored.
It speaks about the power of land and how it provides it with our basic needs.
Return of the Bison
Carrying on this spirit is the Northern Arapaho Tribe, that I am also a member of. This past fall, the tribe brought 10 bison home to the Wind River Indian Reservation. This followed the efforts of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, who also share the reservation with the Arapaho, who manage a herd of 33 bison. The historic event was years in the making and spearheaded by the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office. The mission of the office (that I work for as their Collections Manager) is to preserve the cultural and historic sites of the Arapaho people.
The herd was greeted with prayers and songs from the crowd that included tribal members, school children and elders. The buffalo hold significance to tribal nations for ceremonial and sustenance purposes.
In an interview with Wyoming Public Radio, Devin Oldman, who helped bring back the sacred animal, explained the purpose of the herd which is to go back to a way of life that will help sustain tribal members with food, healings and a greater understanding of who we are as Arapaho people.
“When I’m 80 or 90 and we have a huge herd, if I’m blessed by the Creator to live that long, and I have great-grandchildren or great-great grandchildren, I’ll be able to see that reciprocity for the future,” Oldman said.
I thought of this quote as the credits of Conscience Point rolled and what’s the ultimate endgame for all the key players of this important film. For the residents of the Hamptons, some of which only reside in their multimillion-dollar mansions during certain summer months, their houses will likely be passed down to their children or maybe no one at all. Maybe it will be sold at a very high price and serve once again as a sometime home.
For the Shinnecock Tribal members, it’s about preserving the land for future generations and being able to live, hunt and pray like their ancestors did.
It’s about honoring the people who called this place home long before first contact.
And it’s true: if you take care of the land it will take care of you.
Jordan Dresser is a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe located on the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming. In 2008, he graduated from the University of Wyoming with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism. He has worked as a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star, the Salt Lake Tribune, the Forum, and the Denver Post.
Questions of who owns tribal artifacts and the role tribal members play in these decisions prompted Dresser to leave Wind River and enroll into a Museum Studies Graduate Program at the University of San Francisco. In 2016, he co-produced the documentary What Was Ours. The film touches on the lives of three individuals from the Wind River Indian Reservation and their journey to The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. Dresser currently serves as the Collections Manager for the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office in Riverton, Wyo. His latest film, The Art of Home: a Wind River Story aired on PBS stations and available to stream online.