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The Shinnecock Nation's Return of The Matriarch

Lisa Goree took the helm of the Shinnecock Nation in April, as the Long Island tribe navigates disputes over burial grounds and projects to build a casino and a gas station.


Lisa Goree, center, was sworn in on April 3 as the new chairwoman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation by the co-chairs of the tribe’s Council of Elders, Lucille Bosley, left, and the Rev. Michael Smith.Rebekah Wise

“I guess that will go in front of me,” chuckled Ms. Goree, 60, who in April was elected as the first woman to lead the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Eastern Long Island in more than two centuries.


While the United States has never elected a female president, and Mexico did only this month, female Native American chiefs are not rare. The Shinnecocks had female tribal leaders until 1792, when they adopted an all-male governing structure, Ms. Goree said. They had not had a female leader since then.


Now Ms. Goree’s supporters are touting her election as a return to its matriarchal leadership roots and a departure from centuries of male leadership sometimes marked by internal division and antagonism with local, state and federal government officials.

Ms. Goree likened her election to “a changing of the guard” in how the Shinnecocks approach relations on and off the reservation.


“Women are nurturing and maybe more sensitive to people’s issues, so maybe there’s a different way of going about how to handle things and be more responsive,” she said.


She takes over at a pivotal moment for the Shinnecocks, who are busy with several projects meant to generate much-needed revenue, including a contentious bid to build a travel plaza with a large gas station. Mere blocks away from sprawling mansions currently swarming with work crews primping them for summer, the Shinnecock reservation is a rural, unassuming 1.5-square-mile mix of modest houses and ramshackle trailers


The tribe has a median household income far below that of the wealthy neighboring Hamptons towns.


A smoke shop operated by the Shinnecock Indian Nation of Southhampton is located along Montauk Highway outside the reservation.Credit...Anna Watts for The New York Times

Roughly half of the tribe’s 1,600 members live on the reservation, Ms. Goree said, where basic infrastructure concerns include raising money to upgrade the powwow grounds in time for their annual Labor Day event, the source of one of the tribe’s biggest income infusions of the year.


The glaring inequity between the reservation and the surrounding areas has figured in the tribe’s often-adversarial relationship with the Town of Southampton, but Ms. Goree said she had a built-in advantage in dealing with town officials: She is one.


For more than a decade, she has served as town assessor, an appointed position that oversees the valuation of property for taxation purposes. She said she is the first Shinnecock chair to also serve as a Southampton official.


Ms. Goree said she was one of five girls raised by a single mother on the reservation before moving to nearby Riverhead at age 10. She returned in 1990 to live in a house built by her husband, Kristin Goree, a carpenter who helps maintain several reservation buildings and does private contracting work on homes there.



Two of their three daughters also work for Southampton. The youngest, Kesi Goree, became the first female Native American member of the town police force.


As Shinnecock Nation chairwoman, Ms. Goree’s duties also include overseeing daily tribal operations and land issues, business and economic matters; presiding over leadership and public meetings; and casting a deciding vote on deadlocked tribal council decisions

A map of all of the homes inside the Shinnecock Indian Nation is displayed in the tribal offices.Credit...Anna Watts for The New York Times

“Having a woman as the face of our nation for the first time since 1792 is remarkable,” said Bryan Polite, the tribe’s previous chairman. Mr. Polite had a year left on his two-year term when he stepped down in April, citing exhaustion from the demands of the position.


“She comes with the connections and knowledge of the town government and knows all the players, so having a foot in both worlds is a real asset,” he added.


Southampton’s town supervisor, Maria Moore, who was elected last November, said she had already met with Ms. Goree and was “looking forward to working with her to further a relationship of mutual trust and respect between the town and the tribe.”


Ms. Goree said her role with the town could prove useful in navigating land-use issues, whether shepherding tribal projects on their own property, or monitoring development by others on nontribal land that might disturb Shinnecock burial grounds. The job also provides a unique view of the wealth gap between the tribe and its neighbors.


As assessor, her purview of more than 50,000 parcels includes some of the highest-priced homes in the United States, including in Sagaponack, a village with a median home sale price of well above $5 million.


On the reservation, tribal members pay no property taxes because it is sovereign land. When they turn 21, members are eligible for a free land allotment to build on, but financing a house can be difficult because banks will not offer mortgages because the land cannot be resold.


“Southampton has a $76.7 billion tax base, and we’re here trying to come up with $70,000 for our weekly payroll,” Ms. Goree said.



A classroom at the reservation preschool, where children are taught about their native language, culture and history.Credit...Anna Watts for The New York Times

The tribe has roughly 80 full-time employees to deal with matters like maintenance, housing, security, child and health care, and financial affairs, she said. The wealth gap has long been cited by the tribe partly as a historical consequence of centuries of losing its land over the nearly four centuries since English settlers first arrived in 1640. A 2005 land claim the tribe filed to regain roughly 3,600 acres near its current reservation was dismissed on appeal in federal court in 2016.


Ms. Goree called it “quite ironic” that she is responsible for providing valuations for land that she described as being “stolen by false agreements” with the Shinnecocks. Some of the most valuable parcels date to founding families who “negotiated” leases with tribal representatives in the late 1600s, she said, “and now it’s come full circle because they contact me if they feel their assessment is too high.”


The tribe has undertaken several contentious projects on a nearby 100-acre parcel known as Westwoods. It is in a legal battle with state officials over its 2019 construction, despite local and state opposition, of two digital billboards along Route 27 leading into the Hamptons.


The Shinnecocks have been blocked in the past from opening a casino on the Westwoods parcel, and the tribe’s current plan for a gas station and eventually a hotel complex there has already drawn scrutiny from neighbors and government officials.


Gail Murcott, whose Hampton Bays house abuts the Westwoods property, heads a local homeowners group that supports the tribe’s right to profitable projects as a financial lifeline but disputes its ownership of the parcel and has pressed the town to take legal action to claim it.


Ms. Murcott said the tribe had acted unneighborly by not consulting town officials or local homeowners before abruptly clearing Westwoods land in February for the gas station project. She said she hoped Ms. Goree would be less “in your face” than previous leaders and more considerate of the homeowners.


“She’s obviously a smart woman,” Ms. Murcott said, “and hopefully this is something where cooler heads will prevail, just like if the world had more women in charge, we probably wouldn’t have as many wars.”


Ms. Goree said, “No matter what we do, we always face challenges and roadblocks — someone is always trying to stop us.”


That has been a familiar tribal refrain over decades of failed attempts to open a casino. After many unsuccessful plans at more lucrative locations elsewhere, the tribe, under the previous administration, settled for a scaled-back version built as-of-right on the reservation.

Ms. Goree holds a talking stick used in tribal meetings. She is the tiebreaking vote for trustee decisions.Credit...Anna Watts for The New York Times

But that plan also encountered opposition and is now on hold. Ms. Goree hopes the tribe can find a better plan and location.


“The casino on the reservation was not ideal — we don’t want it to upset our living conditions here right now,” she said.


That Ms. Goree is in a position to navigate such problems on behalf of the Shinnecock Nation is notable.


After the tribal leadership restructuring in 1792, female members remained influential as matriarchs of large families and by running some tribal programs. But they were denied formal input on governing and only gained the right to vote on tribal issues in 1994. Before then, “we couldn’t even talk at some meetings — we weren’t even part of the discussion,” Ms. Goree said.


Natahne Dennis, 39, a female tribal member, said, “Having come from a point in our history when women had no voting rights and now having a chairwoman, it’s a very big milestone.”


In the past decade, several women have served on the seven-member council of trustees that leads the tribe and includes the chair position. Ms. Goree is one of three female members.


Among her other goals is heading off what has become a recurring dispute with the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, where the U.S. Open will be held in 2026 for the sixth time since 1896. The event inevitably sparks controversy with the tribe, which says it once owned the land where the club now is and maintained burial mounds where the course now stands.


To avoid the usual bitter standoffs once the tournament approaches, Ms. Goree said she had begun talking with club officials. That aligns with her broader plans to organize regular informational meetings between tribal and nearby town leaders, “just so it’s not always us versus them.”


“Maybe it’s time,” she said, “to try a new way.”


Corey Kilgannon is a Times reporter who writes about crime and criminal justice in and around New York City.





 





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