How a Native American tribe on Long Island is losing its land to rising seas

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  • The Shinnecock Indian Nation is fighting to protect what remains of its land as climate change prompts sea levels to rise and the shoreline to wear away in Long Island, New York.
  • European settlers, and later the US government, have for centuries relocated indigenous tribes to marginal lands more vulnerable to climate threats.
  • “It’s the only place we have to live. It’s our homeland,” said Shavon Smith, director of the tribe’s environment department.

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Southampton, NY – The Shinnecock Indian Nation once had seasonal villages that extended to the eastern end of Long Island. But after centuries of land loss and forced relocation, more than 600 tribe members now live on the shrinking 1.5-square-mile peninsula.

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The Shinnecocks, nicknamed “people of the stone shores,” are fighting to save what remains of their land as climate change prompts sea levels to rise and eat away at the shoreline. The tribe has used nature to restore the land, from building oyster reefs to lining the boulders on the shoreline to blunt the energy of Shinnecock Bay’s waves.

“It’s the only place we have to live. It’s our homeland,” said Shavon Smith, director of the tribe’s environment department. “And that’s all that remains.”

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Since the mid-19th century, the Shinnecocks had a reservation of about 800 acres—a fraction of their traditional land. Sea level rise on Shinnecock land is estimated to reach between 2.1 and 4.4 feet by the end of the century. According to the tribe’s Climate Adaptation Report, a 100-year storm surge in 2050, when sea levels are projected to be 1.5 feet higher than today, will flood nearly half of the peninsula.

“The water level is rising. I’ve seen it,” said Shinnecock aquaculture manager Mila McKay, who grows oysters and restores the clam population to a creek on the tribe’s land. “Everyone is affected by it.”

Across the shoreline from the reservation, rising sea levels have also affected Southampton’s affluent beach communities, where some homeowners have resorted to building sea walls that temporarily block water while washing the beach. stop. The federal government is prepared to spend billions of dollars along the coastline and protect real estate in areas such as Fire Island, Southampton and East Hampton.

Shinnecock’s fight to protect his land from rising seas and erosion illustrates a wider problem of racial inequality and environmental justice in America, where historically oppressed and disadvantaged Indigenous groups have been more exposed to the effects of climate change. As global temperatures rise and climate disasters become more frequent and intensified, marginalized groups are under greater pressure to fight and adapt to climate change.

For centuries, European settlers and later the US government have forcefully relocated indigenous tribes to marginal lands more vulnerable to climate threats. Research Published in October in the journal Science found that tribal nations have lost 99% of their historical territory. The land they were left with is often more prone to disasters such as heat waves, wildfires and droughts, as well as reduced economic value due to reduced mineral resource potential.

Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was particularly devastating to the reservation. It washed away blazes along the shores in the Great Peconic Bay region, flooded cemeteries, and tore down the roofs of Aboriginal buildings and residential homes. research shows that More than $8 billion in damage out of $60 billion This was due to rising sea levels from Sandy.

Mass relocation due to climate change would be disastrous for the Shinnecock, who have inhabited this piece of land for generations. Unlike many of the beachfront landlords in the Hamptons who could move inland, Shinnock, as with other Indian reservations across America, have strict boundaries and cultural ties to the land.

“Shincock has been banned,” said Allison Branco, coastal director of the Nature Conservancy in New York. “It’s one thing to ask people to move inland when they have a city. But when your reservation is already small and shrinking from sea level rise — it’s an entirely different situation.”

deep connection with the vanishing land

The Shinnecock descended from the Pequot and Narragansett nations of southern New England. In the mid-17th century, European settlers arrived in eastern Long Island and occupied tribal lands, causing infectious diseases to wipe out the Shinnecock population.

For generations, Shinnecocks lived in seasonal villages on Long Island, where they moved closer to the water in the spring and summer and into woodland areas in the fall and winter. Now, most of the reservation resides in a low, south-facing peninsula on Shinnecock Bay that is particularly vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. Climate change is also harming water quality by increasing temperature, salinity and acidification.

Today one out of five people on reservation are living below the poverty line. Life on the reservation is a sharp contrast to the surrounding communities, home of the elite of the Hamptons, many of whom have clashed with the Shinnecocks over the tribe’s plans to build a casino to stimulate the economy.

The tribe is now doing everything in its ability to act against rising sea levels that have destroyed beaches and flooded homes.

In 2014, the tribe received a $3.75 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to restore some of the shoreline. Shinnecock used to spend the money to build an oyster shell reef along the bay that serves to reduce the energy of the waves and protect the surrounding homes from storms. The tribe also planted sea and beach grass to hold the sand, and lined large boulders near the high tide line to protect the grass.

Shinnock recently received state funding to operate the 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 Shinnock Reservation and Meadow Lane, a road that runs through the tip of Southampton’s Barrier Island and consists mainly of mansions worth millions of dollars. McKay said fertilizer runoff from those homes has affected the creek’s water quality and worries that increased acidification will harm her shellfish.

“The ecosystem is very precious,” said Mackey during a walk along the creek. “It’s more vulnerable as the area builds up.”

Nature-based solutions to stop erosion often cost less and are better for the ecosystem than other projects such as building sea walls, which the City of Southampton has urged residents to build against. So far, Smith said, Shinnecock’s efforts have successfully backed the water.

Moving forward, the tribe said additional funds were needed to add more sand to the beach and expand the oyster reef. Nevertheless, these plans are only temporary.

“None of these things are stopping the water from rising. Eventually they’ll get overwhelmed,” Branko said. “The only solution that will be sustainable in the long term is making room for the ocean through mass relocation.”

Measures to stop sea level rise are temporary

The problem is acute around the world. Rising seas and coastal erosion induced by climate change could cause half of the world’s coastline to disappear by the end of the century, according to a study published in journal nature climate change, The Shinnecock area in Southampton could experience chronic flooding of more than 6 feet by 2050. According to climate model.

Branco said the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have given some grants to the Shinnecock Nation, but what the tribe is getting is an order of magnitude smaller than the scale of the federal government’s investment. Shore shorelines in the affluent areas of Long Island.

The US is set to spend at least $1.7 billion over the next three decades to link some 80 miles of the Long Island waterfront with sand flows. Fire Island to Montauk Point Project,

The project, directed by the US Army Corps of Engineers and starting in December, involves millions of dollars to pump sand back offshore on beaches and to raise waterfront homes on stilts in areas such as Fire Island, Southampton and Montauk, where high There are waterfront homes on the level. Flood Threats currently sell at a hefty premium. The project is also targeting thousands of homes to take up projects in the less affluent area of ​​Mastic Beach, where the average home price is about $330,000.

The Army Corps project will focus funding on areas that will prevent the most economic damage while protecting the environment. In areas with expensive real estate, it is usually cheaper for the government to buy and destroy a flood-prone home than to raise it. This can lead to more buying and relocation in less affluent areas as flood conditions worsen, while people in high-value property areas may be able to live longer.

“It’s an illusion that we’re only picking up houses that cost too much,” said James D’Ambrosio, a spokesman for the Army Corps in New York. “We’re doing the best we can to give the taxpayer the biggest bang for their buck.”

Shincock said in his adaptation report that mass relocation from climate change is not a realistic option because his people are naturally land-bound. But given the dire projections of sea level rise on Long Island, experts say the tribe—and many others on Long Island—may ultimately have no choice.

Smith, who has lived on the reservation all his life, recounts how Shinnock’s elders watch the changing shoreline and worry about what the land will look like for their grandchildren.

“We have an emotional, spiritual and transcendental attachment to this place,” Smith said. “The ability to let go of it will bring great trauma to those who are already living with historical trauma.”


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