Long Island Native American Tribe Loses Land Due To Rising Waters


Mila McKey, Aquaculture Manager at Shinnecock, breeds oysters at Heady Creek, Southampton.

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SOUTHAMPTON, NY – The Shinnecock Indian Nation once had seasonal villages that stretched across the eastern end of Long Island. But after centuries of land loss and forced relocation, more than 600 tribal members now live on a shrinking 1.5 square mile peninsula.

The Shinnecocks, whose name means “the people of the stony shore,” fight to save what is left of their land as climate change raises sea levels and eats away at the shore. The tribe has used nature to restore the land, from building oyster reefs to lining up rocks on the shore to dampen the energy of the waves of Shinnecock Bay.

“This is the only place we have to stay. This is our homeland,” said Shavonne Smith, director of the tribe’s environmental department, walking near a scared cemetery that is in danger of being flooded. “And that’s all that’s left of it.”

Since the mid-19th century, the Shinnecock have had a reserve of approximately 800 acres – a fraction of their traditional lands. Sea level rise over the Shinnecock lands is expected to reach between 2.1 and 4.4 feet by the turn of the century. According to the tribe’s climate adaptation report, nearly half of the peninsula is expected to be inundated with flooding if a hundred-year storm occurs in 2050, when the sea level is expected to be 1.5 feet higher than today.

“The water levels are rising. I’ve seen it,” said Mila McKey, director of aquaculture for Shinnecock, which raises oysters and restores clam populations in a stream on the tribe’s land. “Everyone is affected by this.”

Across the shore from the reserve, rising sea levels also plague the affluent seaside communities of Southampton, where some landowners have resorted to building dikes that temporarily hold back water while leaching the beach. The federal government is on the verge of spending billions of dollars to shore up the coastline and protect real estate in areas like Fire Island, Southampton and East Hampton.

The Shinnecock’s battle to save their lands from rising waters and erosion reflects a larger issue of racial inequality and environmental justice in the United States, where historically oppressed and disenfranchised Indigenous groups have been further reduced. exposed to the effects of climate change. As global temperatures rise and climate disasters become more frequent and intense, marginalized groups are under increased pressure to fight and adapt to climate change.

For centuries, European settlers, and later the US government, forcibly relocated indigenous tribes to marginal lands more vulnerable to climatic hazards. Research published in the journal Science in October found that tribal nations lost 99% of their historic territory. The land left to them is often more prone to disasters such as heat waves, forest fires and drought, while having diminished economic value due to lower mineral resource potential.

The Shinnecocks are restoring clam populations at Heady Creek and building an oyster reef to dampen wave energy along the bay.

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Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was particularly destructive for the reserve. It washed away cliffs along the shores of the Great Peconic Bay area, flooded the graveyard, and tore the roofs of tribal buildings and dwelling houses. Research shows that more than 8 billion dollars of the 60 billion total damages de Sandy was due to rising sea levels.

Massive relocation due to climate change would be devastating for the Shinnecock, who have inhabited this slice of land for generations. Unlike many beachfront homeowners in the Hamptons, who might move inland, the Shinnecock, as well as other Indian reservations across the United States, have strict boundaries and a cultural connection to the Earth.

“The Shinnecocks have been restricted,” said Alison Branco, coastal director of Nature Conservancy in New York City. “It’s one thing to ask people to move inland when they have a city. But when your reservation is already small and shrinking due to sea level rise, that’s a completely different situation. “

A deep connection to the endangered land

The Shinnecocks were descended from the Pequot and Narragansett nations of southern New England. In the mid-17th century, European settlers arrived in eastern Long Island and encroached on tribal lands, bringing infectious diseases that decimated the people of Shinnecock.

For generations, the Shinnecocks have lived in seasonal villages on Long Island, where they have come close to the water in the spring and summer and moved to wooded areas in the fall and winter. Now, the majority of the reserve resides on a low, south-facing peninsula on Shinnecock Bay which is particularly vulnerable to ocean storm surges and flooding. Climate change is also affecting water quality by increasing temperatures, salinity and acidification.

Shavonne Smith, Director of the Shinnecock Nation Environmental Department, stands on the shore of Shinnecock Bay.

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Today, one in five people on the reserve live below the poverty line. Life on the reserve stands in stark contrast to the surrounding communities, which are home to the Hampton elite, many of whom clashed with the Shinnecocks over the tribe’s plans to build a casino to boost the economy.

The tribe is now doing everything in their power to combat rising sea levels that have eroded beaches and flooded homes.

In 2014, the tribe received a $ 3.75 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to restore part of the shoreline. The Shinnecock used to build an oyster shell reef along the bay that dampens wave energy and protects neighboring homes from storm surges. The tribe also planted sea and beach grasses to hold the sand in place and carpeted large boulders near the high tide line to protect the grasses.

The Shinnecock also recently received state funding to conduct a Heady Creek management plan to study water quality and coastal erosion. The tribe is expanding an oyster hatchery and hopes the facility will produce more reefs along the bay, improve water quality, and produce oysters for the local market.

Heady Creek is located between the Shinnecock Preserve and Meadow Lane, a street that starts from the tip of Southampton Barrier Island and consists mostly of mansions valued in the tens of millions of dollars. McKey said the fertilizer runoff from those homes has affected the creek’s water quality and fears the increased acidification could damage its shellfish.

“The ecosystem is so precious,” McKey said on a walk along the creek. “It’s more vulnerable as the area builds up.”

Expensive seaside homes in Southampton are vulnerable to coastal erosion and sea level rise.

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Nature-based solutions to prevent erosion often cost less and are better for the ecosystem than other projects like the construction of dikes, which the city of Southampton has urged residents not to build. So far, Smith said, the Shinnecock’s efforts have been successful in retaining water.

Going forward, the tribe said they need more funds to pour more sand on the beach and make the oyster reef bigger. Yet these plans are only temporary.

“None of these things stop the water from rising. Eventually they will be submerged,” Branco said. “The only solution that will last in the long term is to make room for the ocean through massive outsourcing.”

Solutions to prevent sea level rise are temporary

The problem is serious all over the world. Half of the world’s beaches could disappear by the end of the century due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion induced by climate change, according to a study published in the Nature Climate Change magazine. Southampton’s Shinnecock area could experience chronic flooding of over 6 feet by 2050, according to climate models.

Branco said that although the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have provided grants to the Shinnecock Nation, the magnitude of what the tribe receives is an order of magnitude less than the scale of investments the federal government is about to make. strengthen the coasts in the rich areas of Long Island.

Since the mid-19th century, the Shinnecock have had a reserve of approximately 800 acres, a fraction of their traditional lands.

Emma Newburger / CNBC

The United States is expected to spend at least $ 1.7 billion over the next three decades to shore up about 80 miles of Long Island’s waterfront with infusions of sand, as part of the Fire Island Project at Montauk Point.

The project, led by the US Army Corps of Engineers and slated to begin in December, includes millions of dollars to pump sand off beaches and lift waterfront homes on stilts in areas like Fire Island, Southampton and Montauk, where higher flood risk waterfront homes are currently selling for a massive premium. The project is also targeting thousands of homes for lifting projects in the less affluent area of ​​Mastic Beach, where the median home price is around $ 330,000.

The Corps project will focus funding on areas that will prevent the most economic damage possible while protecting the environment. In areas where real estate is expensive, it is usually cheaper for the government to lift a flood-prone home rather than buy it and destroy it. This could lead to more buyouts and relocations to poorer areas as flood conditions worsen, while people living in high-value real estate areas could stay in place longer.

“It is a mistake to only raise houses that are worth a lot of money,” said James D’Ambrosio, spokesman for the Army Corps in New York. “We are doing our best with the funds we have to give taxpayers the best value for their money.”

The Shinnecock, in its adaptation report, said massive relocation due to climate change is not a realistic option because their people are intrinsically linked to the land. But given the grim projections of sea level rise on Long Island, experts say the tribe – and many others on Long Island – may not have a choice.

Smith, who has lived on the reserve his entire life, described how the Shinnecock elders have noticed the changing coastline and are concerned about what the land will look like to their grandchildren.

“We have an emotional, spiritual and genetic attachment to this place,” Smith said. “The potential of having to leave him would bring a lot of trauma to a people who are already living with historic trauma.”


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