Shinnecock Dynasty

Written By: Philip Gotthelf

I did not realize I was in the presence of royalty when my mother introduced me to Princess Nowanda of the Shinnecock Indians.  My mother met the Princess while attending classes at the newly founded Southampton College.  They were studying early education.  It was back in the 1960s.  I don’t recall the exact summer, but it was surely post 1963 because I remember a debate over Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique that marked the beginning of the feminist movement.  They were debating the role of women in education and politics when I came into the living room.  The intensity of their conversation made a lasting impression to this day.


Princess Nowanda had brought over a traditional Shinnecock Indian delicacy, clam pie.  “Come and join us for a traditional dish,” she greeted me.  The Princess was a large and attractive woman and clearly very passionate about her various causes.  “Have you ever been to the Indian reservation?” she asked.  “Yes,” I replied.  “Did you have fun?” she asked.  “Yes,” I said.  “Did you learn anything about our people?”


I interrupted her debate with my mother on feminism to receive a unique education and perspective about the history of a small tribe of indigenous Americans, descended from the Pequot and Narragansett tribes of New England.  Princess Nowanda sat back in the sofa and drew me near.  “I will tell you some history very few people know,” she said.  In story telling fashion, the Princess flawlessly related fascinating tales of her people.


For those who can remember the 1960s, popular television shows included Gun Smoke, The Big Valley, Bonanza, and other “westerns” that did not exactly portray American Indians in a positive light.  Cap pistols were popular in the 1960s and when we played cowboys & Indians, no one wanted to be an Indian.  I was about to hear the real story of small Indian tribe that suffered at the hands of Western Europeans who showed up, uninvited on Long Island’s shores.  I learned of a kind and gentle society that respected every citizen for who he or she was and how they contributed for the common welfare.


I was probably somewhere between ten and thirteen years old when I learned that a substantially peaceful people and highly sophisticated society existed throughout the Americas.  Tribes of the Northeast were mostly settled into villages while those in the Midwest and West were often nomadic.  The clam pie was ready.  You had to pre-cook the clams and cut them in small pieces.  Certain parts were beaten to soften the tougher meat.  All the vegetables were fresh from the reservation and the cream was from a local dairy.  The spices were all locally grown.  We took a break and ate.


It was years later when I was studying economics that I drew the correlation between American Indian social structure and several socialist principles.  Land was shared as opposed to privately owned.  Every tribal member contributed to the common good.  Women raised children, did most of the farming, and prepared food.  Men hunted, caught abundant fish, built “wigwams,” and accumulated seashells for “wampam” used as money.  Arguments were settled by tribunal.  No one was poor.  No one wanted for food or shelter.  This substantially contrasted against the demonization of socialism portrayed as an inevitable road to fascism.  I was the only university student who knew from a first hand source that socialism existed for hundreds of years, right here in America.  The system worked exceedingly well according to the Princess.  To be sure, Princess Nowanda never mentioned socialism by name.  The construct only became apparent to me as I was learning about capitalism and other economic alternatives.


This election cycle we were exposed to candidate Bernie Sanders, a self-professed Democratic Socialist.  He inspired millions of Millennial voters with his political philosophy.  In truth, there was hardly and substantive discussion of socialism as a workable eco-political system.  This is not to say that such a system would be appropriate or acceptable to a modern American population of more than 350 million diverse people.  We like our capitalism to the extent that it is practiced.  Some regularly buy lottery tickets as a quick road to be like Donald Trump, albeit unlikely.  Many who summer on the East End don’t need to win the lottery.  Generally, Americans do not think of Social Security or Medicare as socialistic constructs and I have never seen a economic text that reveals how American Indian tribes lived under their unique form of socialism.


The Shinnecock Indians only recently gained Federal recognition in 2010.  Every year they raise funds on Labor Day Weekend with their traditional Powwow.  I see the ads and billboards for this festive event and think how their status is at the discretion of our Federal government.  I attended many Powwows growing up.  It was how we ended summers.  My uncles stocked up on tax-free cigarettes.  If you happen to be in Southampton for the Labor Day festivities, I recommend a visit to the Shinnecock reservation.


Unfortunately, Princess Nowanda never memorialized her stories.  I doubt her clam pie recipe survived her.  There is hardly mention of her on the Internet.  There may no longer be tribal royalty.  I don’t know if there is a tribal historian.  I visited with the Princess many times over several summers.  She had many stories and even more opinions about politics, women’s rights, and education.  I remember her for the history of a people too often ignored and certainly neglected by a government that is not their own.  One day, if I am fortunate, I will try to recreate her stories so others can share my experience.