By Carolina Hidalgo

Right off Montauk Highway in Southampton, past a row of smoke shops, a farmer’s market and a few “No Trespassing” signs, is a suburban community that looks much like any other.

Modest houses dot the Shinnecock Indian reservation, an 800-acre peninsula belonging to one of the nation’s oldest self-governing tribes. Residents gather at the community center, attend mass at a quaint wood-shingled church and honk hello to one another while driving home. Children play along the shores, which overlook some of the most expensive real estate in the country.

But in this neighborhood — nestled in the heart of the Hamptons — where mostly-single heads of households bring in an average of $14,000 a year, the Shinnecock carve out an impoverished existence alongside their opulent neighbors.

Now, a long-anticipated transition is on the horizon for the Shinnecock Indian Nation. A state-recognized tribe for more than 200 years, it is closer than ever to federal tribal recognition. The designation would create a government-to-government relationship between the Shinnecock and the United States and make the tribe eligible for federal funding, economic development aid and social services.

The benefits

On a recent sunny afternoon, Elizabeth Thunder Bird Haile sat on an armchair in her modest, one-story house on the Shinnecock reservation. Shells, pottery and tribal knickknacks crowded the shelves around her. A portrait of her father, the late Chief Thunder Bird, sat atop the mantle.

Across the room, the cover of a days-old Newsday announced that Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is in talks with the Shinnecock about a possible casino at Nassau Coliseum.

“I’m living in a very interesting time in my tribe’s life,” Haile, a beloved tribal elder, said in her deliberate, measured manner of speaking.

In addition to the opportunity to establish a casino, federal recognition will open the door to possibilities for housing development, better healthcare and job training.

“Out here, as we are right now, I can’t take a loan out on this house,” Haile explained. “No bank will touch my house.”

Because banks are unable to foreclose on reservation land, they don’t offer mortgages to residents. Many houses are built one room at a time, over many years, as homeowners save up enough money for additions.

With federal recognition, tribal members will be eligible to apply for grants through a housing improvement program that offers homeowners funding to fix substandard housing.

Tribal members, many of whose houses are not weatherized or up to code, stand to benefit from the program.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs also provides the 564 federally recognized Indian and Alaskan tribes with other basic infrastructure assistance, offering funding for road improvements through a joint program with the Federal Highway Administration.

But Haile says she is mainly looking forward to educational and cultural opportunities for the tribe’s youth. She insists that if the tribe goes into gaming, there should be plenty of money put aside to offer college scholarships.

Haile also hopes for more funding for the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum, of which she is vice president. The museum board is planning to construct a life-size Indian village that will show visitors how the tribe lived in the 1600s.

“We have fundraisers but we still don’t have any money from the tribe because our tribe does not have any money.”

The road to recognition

The change of fortune that should come this summer with the expected federal designation comes 32 years after the Shinnecock submitted a letter of intent to petition for the tribal recognition.

The tribe was one of the first to submit a letter following the 1978 creation of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment, which has become notorious for its decades-long wait times. Over the past 10 years, only two tribes have been recognized through the process, while more than 200 applications remain on hold.

“There are no other processes that take over a generation to approve,” said Dante Desiderio, an economic development policy specialist at the National Congress of American Indians. “It’s obviously more burdensome than it needs to be.”

The Shinnecock spent 25 years collecting all the required historical, anthropological and genealogical documents and evidence needed to meet the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ seven criteria for recognition.

“The federal recognition process is one of the most tedious, time-consuming, degrading processes ever in life,” said Staysea Lee Hutchings, director of the Shinnecock Tribal Enrollment Office, who has handled much of the necessary paperwork. “We have to prove that we’re Native American, that we have a government. We just have to prove everything.”

The tribe was able to speed up its application after a settlement, following an unreasonable-delay lawsuit, in which a judge ordered the Bureau of Indian Affairs to make a decision on the application by December 2009.

Haile recalls the judge using the word “unconscionable” to describe the bureau’s actions in his ruling.

“Because that’s not what you do to people when they have achieved the standards that the BIA set,” she explained.

In December, the bureau proposed to determine that the Shinnecock is an Indian tribe under the meaning of federal law. And earlier this spring, it closed an objection period on the tribe’s petition, setting the stage for a summer determination.

The downsides

Today, about 500 of the nation’s 1,066 enrolled members live on the reservation, making up a tight-knit neighborhood. The sovereign community elects three tribal trustees each year and is governed by oral law, though the tribe has been working on developing a constitution in recent years.

But some Shinnecock fear that government oversight will change their way of life. Chenae Bullock, a student at Marymount Manhattan College, is skeptical about the federal designation.

By establishing Indian nations as domestic dependent nations, federal recognition gives tribes a politically murky sovereignty subject to changes under U.S. Indian policy.

“Laws will continue to be passed and they’ll continue to interfere with what we’ve always been doing,” Bullock said.

She knows the government benefits are much-needed but doesn’t think they’re worth the trade-off in sovereignty.

The benefits, she said, make people shortsighted. “They just see that their children need this and they need that. But if we continue to stick together as one nation we can overcome that.”

Desiderio, of the National Congress of American Indians, admits that the state is much less involved in tribal affairs than the federal government.

“There’s a lot more oversight, which is one of the downsides,” he said of federal recognition. “But relative to the benefits you receive there are a very small amount of downsides.”

Matthew L.M. Fletcher, director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at the Michigan State University College of Law, also recognizes that there are pluses and minuses.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has to authorize governing documents and can sometimes hold up approval of constitutions or charters. It also works with newly-recognized tribes to set criteria for who can enroll as a member.

But, Fletcher said, “The way that the U.S. deals with Indian tribes is probably the best it has ever been.”

Haile acknowledged that tribal members have a right to be afraid. But, she said, she has been studying the regulations since the process began in the ’70s.

“I think that they will let us conduct our lives a lot like we’ve been doing. I’m not afraid.”

The tribe tries to see all change positively, she said, recalling the changes that began half a decade ago when Shinnecock shops began to spring up along Montauk Highway.

The stores invited the public onto the tribe’s home in exchange for commerce and much-needed streams of revenue, altering the reservation’s frontier and taking away a small measure of privacy.

Now, Haile admits, the changes that come with federal recognition will require the Shinnecock to give up some freedoms.

But the tribe will adjust.

“We adjust to everything else,” she said. “Because we have to.”