NEW YORK – The Southampton, N.Y.-based Shinnecock Indians (search) on Tuesday fired the first arrow in their battle to reclaim ancestral lands — filing a federal lawsuit seeking the return of 3,600 acres of prime real estate "stolen" by the state a century and a half ago.
The 1,300-member tribe also is asking for monetary damages — conservatively estimated at $1.7 billion — and 150 years of back rent and interest in what it called "the largest Indian land claim ever filed."
The suit is seen by many locals as an attempt to force favorable action on the Shinnecocks' bid for federal recognition and its plan to open a casino in the booming resort area.
Members of the tribe beat animal-skin drums, shook rattles, chanted an "honor song" and whooped yesterday as their leader, Randy King (search), entered federal court to file the suit.
"This day has been decades in the making. We only seek what is ours," said King, chairman of the tribe's board of trustees.
The tribe wants title to all non-residential property within a 3,600-acre area of Southampton Town — land it claims it was cheated out of in 1859.
Also named in the suit are exclusive Ram Island, several $1.5 million-plus luxury-home subdivisions, the Southampton Golf Club (search), the Long Island Rail Road, and the 314-acre Bayberry Land estate that's now being transformed into a state-of-the-art golf course.
Although residential property was not mentioned in the suit, the tribe said it will return to court next month to seek compensation for the loss of all land in Southampton Town between the Shinnecock Canal (search) and the Brookhaven Town line.
But homeowners will not be asked to ante up or pick up stakes. Instead, the tribe will seek reparations from the state, Southampton Town and commercial entities, Shinnecock officials said.
Just east of the reservation, and not mentioned by the Shinnecocks, is the priciest stretch of property on the East Coast — beachfront Meadow and Gin lanes and the tony "estate area" of Southampton. The tribe's crusade to right past wrongs may soon put them at risk, too.
Yesterday's suit contends that in 1703 Southampton leased the tribe several thousand acres of land in exchange for $25.
It claims the lease was broken in 1859 when a group of investors, claiming to have a petition signed by 21 Shinnecocks, got the state Legislature to approve the exchange of the tribe's land for an 800-acre tract.
The suit says some names on the petition were repeated, half were questionable "X" marks, and several belonged to either minors or deceased members of the tribe — and the Legislature had been made aware of this before it voted.
About 500 of the tribe's members currently live on the 800-acre reservation.