The Evolution of Shinnecock Culture

John Strong

Culture is one of those familiar words used regularly by people in a wide variety of contexts. For the anthropologist, however, "culture" is defined as a pattern of activities, beliefs, and material artifacts common to a particular group of people (Aceves and King, 1979). A group of people do not lose their culture; it may change, but it is never lost. Culture by this definition has nothing at all to do with physical appearance. So it is with the Shinnecock people. Their culture has undergone changes, and their people have absorbed other genetic heritages, yet the culture retains its essential character.

Unfortunately, the term is not always used as carefully outside of textbooks. The English colonists viewed Indian culture as inferior and attempted to destroy it as quickly as they could. There is an ironic twist to this theme here on Long Island. During the seventeenth century the 'uncivilized" aspects of Indian culture were used as a justification for taking away Indian land. The colonists argued that because the Indians had no intention of making the land productive through application of agriculture and technology, they had forfeited their title. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the rationale was reversed. From the middle of the nineteenth century onward the Shinnecock were threatened with the assertion that they had "lost their culture" and had, therefore, weakened their claim to their ancestral lands.

The "disappearance" of the Indian race is a recurring theme in local histories. Gabriel Furman in his Antiquities of Long Island (1874), announced that nature itself, in the form of disease, was wiping out the Indians to make way for the more dynamic white race. He further asserted the physical assimilation of Indians with whites was impossible because the mixture of Indian and white blood "...scarcely ever lasts beyond the second generation . . . but gradually wastes away, so that it is a common remark that the half-breeds soon run out' (Furman, 1874, p. 52). This blatantly racist statement was repeated without critical comment by James Truslow Adams in his Memorials of Old Bridgehampton.

"The Indians," said Adams. "... seem to be unable to assimilate the white man's civilization just as physically the two races cannot mix, the union proving sterile, I understand, beyond the second generation" (Adams. 1916: 35). These scholars made no attempt to rise above the prejudices of their time as they uncritically repeated local folklore. Small wonder that the Shinnecock remain today aloof and suspicious of professional scholars who approach them.

"Culture" and "blood" were blended into one concept by nineteenth century writers in spite of the fact that blood has nothing to do with either appearance or culture. One observer after another proclaimed the epitaph of the last "pureblooded" Shinnecock. When Mary Wacus died in 1867 at the age of 100, a town official recorded the following words by her name: "the last full-blooded squaw and the oldest of the Shinnecocks." (Southampton Town Archives, Death Records Mss.) This biological inaccuracy, with its false ring of finality, implied that the culture was also dying. The local press seized upon this theme with great enthusiasm. Presumably the newspaper reporters were merely trying to add a bit of drama to their story which might attract more readers. This sort of comment was repeated with greater frequency after the tragic sinking of the Circassian in December, 1876. The ship ran aground offshore during a storm. When the call went out for a salvage crew to rescue the cargo, eleven men from Shinnecock agreed to take the job. One of the men, Alfonso Eleazer, left the ship before the storm engulfed the rescue operation. The ship broke apart while the crew was on board, casting all of them into the freezing water. None of the Shinnecock men were saved. Reporters were quick to lament the passing of the "flower of the Shinnecock tribe.'' As recently as April 22' 1936, the Long Island Press repeated the story of the Circassian and concluded with the assertion that "They were the last of the pure blood male Indians on Long Island."

There were two false premises implicit in this epitaph. One was that the death of ten men depleted the Shinnecock male population "beyond recovery." We do not have the actual census figures of 1876 but, judging from censuses before and after that date, there were over two hundred Shinnecock living on or near the reservation. The second false premise is that these ten were the "purest" of the Shinnecock population. Certainly the people who recruited the salvage crew did not take the time to select "racially pure" Shinnecock. They were simply a random number of men who needed work at the time. In spite of these inaccuracies, the myth of the last "pure-blood" was recited again and again in the media.

In 1909 an Albany newspaper carried the report of a state health officer who had investigated a tuberculosis epidemic on eastern Long Island. The doctor was so struck by the appearance of a Shinnecock man named Wickham Cuffee that he sent a photograph back in his report. Mr. Cuffee so closely resembled George Washington, said Dr. Huber, that the local people often called him "George." The Brooklyn Eagle picked up the Albany story and summarized it in their September 4, 1909 edition. The article concluded with the following words:

We were not aware before that there was a "pureblooded' or .'full-blooded" Indian on the reservation. The last of the full-bloods was lost on the wrecked steamer, Circassian.
Sure enough, when Wickham Cuffee died in 1915 he was anointed "the last of the Shinnecocks" by local historian John Morice (Morice, 1979: 164). In 1936 when Mary Rebecca Kellis died at the age of 102, she was duly heralded as " . . . the last full blooded Indian living on Long Island." (Long Island Press, April 22, 1936). Many more citations of this sort can easily be found. The same old phrases were printed whenever an elderly person from the reservation died.

In spite of wishful thinking on the part of people who would like to see the Shinnecock disappear, the Indians and their culture are alive and well today. Historical documentation and anthropological data clearly support this conclusion. The best way to demonstrate this is to carefully examine the ancient traditions as they evolved so that we can trace their connection to current customs and practices among the Shinnecock.