The Shinnecock Nation this week announced the Hamptons’ first casino, to feature 1,000 video lottery terminals, 30 Texas Hold‘em tables and a bingo parlor. Photo: Adobe Stock

Have to hand it to the Shinnecock Nation. After centuries of the kind of exploitation, oppression and downright abuse that have befallen most Native Americans, they have Long Island’s power elite reeling.

Gone are the days when shameless land speculators, their well connected lawyers, along with farmers and politicians, took cynical advantage of them. No longer are Shinnecocks induced with crude fraud into giving away what they owned for countless generations, enabling the Hamptons to flourish with hotels, resorts, estates and even a world-class golf course, cynically bearing the tribe’s name.

The old story of white society’s leaving them on a 900-acre reservation, a tiny fraction of what had once been theirs, barely able to subsist, left the Shinnecocks at a terrible disadvantage. Internal strife and poverty were their fate, and the harsh reality, frankly, was that no one on the outside really gave a damn.

Fewer than a thousand Shinnecocks remained, and the local press covered whatever disputes tribal leaders had among themselves, while their annual Powwow celebration served as one of the tribe’s only source of revenue for its struggling people.

Then, slowly but surely, things began to change. It had, perhaps, all to do with their vision, with patience and tenacity, durably connected to their ancient heritage, their love for their land and for the spirit of their ancestors. Nothing was beyond reach.

Soon the Shinnecocks unexpectedly gained state and federal tribal recognition, became known as the Shinnecock Nation, and asserted their rights to the vast areas of the South Fork that had been stolen from them. They dared to fight to exist, resisting the systematic extinction that the elites planned for them all.

To gain the economic self-sufficiency that had eluded them for so long, the Shinnecock Nation stood up against one well-financed lawsuit after another, launched by encroaching private parties and government agencies on every level. The Nation shockingly erected a revenue-producing billboard, 61 feet high, on the Nation’s property along Montauk Highway, and they now seek to operate a gambling casino.

At first their ambition for a casino was dismissed, but here’s where the analogy of the race between the tortoise and the hare characterizes the Shinnecock Nation’s determination. They quietly sought project backers, at first without success. They sought a site for their dream at several L.I. locations, but each fell through. Undaunted and focused, they suddenly showed themselves to be enormously skillful. The power elite who casually underestimated them are suddenly being outmaneuvered, and they don’t like it, not at all.

The Shinnecocks finally secured the partnership of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, well established in the gaming industry with their Hard Rock and casino chain. The well-heeled Tri-State Partners of New Jersey has also joined the venture. Then the U.S. National Gaming Commission approved a gaming ordinance specifically for the Shinnecocks, for a 76,000-square-foot class II gaming facility on their territory on Montauk Highway.

They all came together just this past week to announce plans to construct the Hamptons’ first casino. It will feature 1,000 video lottery terminals and 30 Texas Hold‘em table games and a bingo parlor. Already they have put together detailed traffic mitigation surveys and plans, and plans for extensive parking facilities. They plan to open in two years. The Shinnecocks will own the casino.

As they put all this together, they have been hard at work developing plans and financing for a gas station/convenience store, a medical cannabis facility and a second 61-foot-tall billboard for their territory.

The politicians have publicly opposed the casino; the Southampton Town Supervisor called it a “high stakes gamble.” He states simply, “I don’t think it can be done.” These are familiar words to the Shinnecocks. And now the Suffolk county executive wants government “on all levels” to work with the Shinnecocks on their economic goals without a casino as one of them. Too little, too late?

The Shinnecock Nation has been winning the race with the hare, and has caught the self-assured hare fast asleep. But there’s one additional thing they would like for their project — a Class III gaming permit. They’re quite satisfied with Class II casino they plan now. And it requires no New York State approval. But a Class III does, and with its additional variety of table games, it would be quite a more profitable operation.

So how will this drama unfold? How far are the town supervisor and the county executive, ever the close political allies, willing to go to move what is proving to be a realized dream for the Nation? Will New York’s governor, also the county executive’s political ally, help out? And if he does, will he use his statutory authority to grant the state’s Class III license to this project?

So what kind of meeting of the minds might come out of this: a location outside of the venerable Hamptons, in exchange for a Class III gaming license? And just where might that other location be? EPCAL? Or is mention of EPCAL, to quote the over-confident hare, just “fear mongering?”

How the mighty have fallen, that they scramble to make a deal with a tribe that they and their predecessors had written off long ago. What an irony that the wily Shinnecocks are fast in the driver’s seat, and have been securely, more than anyone ever imagined.

Would that the power elites of 350 years ago, the long-gone scions of the old South Fork families, whose progeny still reign supreme, and the vaunted founding fathers, whose portraits hang in Hamptons libraries, country clubs and historical societies, an inspiration for their successors — would that all of them could see just how the Native Americans they cruelly pushed aside, when no one noticed, have slowly and surely gained the upper hand.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg