Why the Shinnecock Tribe Is Clashing With the Hamptons' Elite

Corey Kilgannon
·7 min read
Randy King, the tribal chairman of the Shinnecock Indians, at the site where the tribe plans to start construction of a casino on its reservation in Southampton, N.Y., March 12, 2021. (Johnny Milano/The New York Times)
Randy King, the tribal chairman of the Shinnecock Indians, at the site where the tribe plans to start construction of a casino on its reservation in Southampton, N.Y., March 12, 2021. (Johnny Milano/The New York Times)

For two decades, the Shinnecock Indian Nation has tried and failed to open a casino near Manhattan in the hope that a gambling hall would be an economic engine to wrest them from poverty and fund social programs.

Now the tribe has its eye on a new location: its home in the Hamptons.

The Shinnecock Hamptons Casino is expected to rise on the tribe’s reservation here on the East End of Long Island as early as 2023.

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But some of the tribe’s neighbors are uniting in opposition against placing the casino in this summer getaway known for staid, shingled summer homes owned by wealthy and influential homeowners, who fiercely guard the area’s low-key feel. They regard the casino, which would feature bingo slots and poker, as a distasteful element as unwelcome as franchise restaurants and big box stores — which have been kept out to preserve the area’s character.

Tribal leaders of the Shinnecocks said they have no choice but to build on the reservation and to start construction this summer, in an effort to get a jump on competitors seeking state licenses to build other casinos in or around New York City.

“This is about the preservation of our people,” said Bryan Polite, the tribe’s chairman. “The story of the Shinnecocks is one of struggle and perseverance, and that’s what’s happening right now.”

The new casino plan comes as the country grapples with social and financial inequity issues with regard to many disenfranchised and oppressed groups, including Indigenous peoples. On the Shinnecock reservation, one person in five lives below the poverty line in a sparse mix of modest houses and ramshackle trailers. From a scruffy shoreline, the Shinnecocks can gaze across the bay at workers landscaping the lawns of huge Southampton summer mansions. It is a stark inequity that tribal leaders hope can be improved by the financial lifeline of a tribally run casino.

Because the reservation is sovereign land, free from government regulations, the planned Shinnecock Hamptons Casino cannot be blocked by local zoning laws and restrictions. That has not stopped a group of roughly 200 homeowners from forming the Hamptons Neighborhood Group and setting up a website with the motto: “Keep the Hamptons the Hamptons!”

The group called the casino out of character with its residential surroundings and said it would lead to increased traffic, as well as possible noise problems, disturbances and crime. They have begun discussing with tribal leaders the possibility of finding another location that might also benefit the tribe.

“A lot of us are bleeding-heart liberals and sympathetic to the oppressed, and we understand their attempt for economic development,” said a homeowner in the group, James Wacht. “But it’s not the right location.”

The Southampton town supervisor, Jay Schneiderman, said many local residents oppose the casino plan, and some have vowed to move away if it is built. He said he respects the tribe’s rights but added, “I cannot think of a worse location to build a casino.”

Alan Woinski, a gambling industry analyst and consultant, said the Shinnecocks’ proposal could cause enough of an uproar to pressure Gov. Andrew Cuomo to offer the tribe a deal to build a more lucrative casino elsewhere.

Polite said the tribe would certainly not rebuff an offer to find a more lucrative location.

“We would have preferred to have a Las Vegas-style casino close to Manhattan, but modest returns are better than no returns,” Polite said.

Shinnecock leaders would not disclose financial details, and it remains unclear how profitable the 76,000-square-foot casino might prove to be.

The casino on the reservation won approval from the federal National Indian Gaming Commission after the Shinnecocks failed to get state support for a casino near Manhattan. That approval mandates that the casino must operate as a smaller Class 2 gaming facility — on reservation land only — with only bingo slots and a limited poker option. Those restrictions and being 80 miles away from Manhattan could put the Shinnecocks’ casino at a disadvantage with competitors.

When the Shinnecocks began trying to open one of the first casinos in New York state roughly 20 years ago, they cited studies reporting that, with the local market wide open, such a gambling facility would be likely to be one of the most lucrative casinos in the country.

Members envisioned their fortunes turning as they had for the Mohegans and Mashantucket Pequot tribes in Connecticut, which benefited from the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, two of the largest casinos in the country.

As the Shinnecocks’ proposals failed, more than a dozen other casinos opened across the state, including three downstate — Jake’s 58 Casino Hotel in Islandia, in Suffolk County, is some 40 miles to the west — that would certainly affect the tribe’s potential customer base. Jake’s 58, which opened in 2017, is among the highest earning video-lottery betting sites in the state and is seeking state authorization to double its existing number of 1,000 video lottery terminals.

Shinnecock leaders are eager to open their casino quickly, with the state set to issue three new licenses in 2023 for full-scale casino locations in or near New York City. These licenses are being sought by large casino operators and would further siphon potential customers from a casino in Southampton.

“We were at the table before those guys were and somehow we got overlooked,” said Seneca Bowen, 32, a tribal trustee, as he viewed the planned casino site one day earlier this month.

The tribe, which is expecting up to $6 million toward economic relief and social programs from the Biden administration’s stimulus package, is embarking on the casino with Tri State Partners, which has worked with the Seminole tribe on the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City.

Of the roughly 500 casinos opened by Indian tribes across the country, some have succeeded in lifting tribes out of poverty while others have disappointed with meager profits or even closed because of competition, poor location or disputes with financial partners, Woinski said.

Even with a limited profitability because of size and gaming restrictions, the Shinnecock casino’s location would probably yield reliable revenue, he said. “It’s the Hamptons,” he said. “And also, there are no other casinos there, so people will go.”

That’s what residents surrounding the reservation worry about.

Shinnecock leaders said they were open to working with the homeowners group as long as it did not derail the casino plan.

Polite called the project vital to the survival of the Shinnecocks and dismissed the opposition as “hysteria created anytime we try to do anything.” Compared to the planned casino, he said, “You have houses around here that are three times that size.”

Striding the parcel of land where the casino would be built, Randy King, 58, vice chairman of the tribe, said members do not want an opportunity to pass them by. As casino attempts failed through the years, he said tribal members wondered, “When is the arc of justice going to swing our way?”

The first white settlers arrived in the Town of Southampton, the oldest English settlement in New York, in 1640. In the centuries since then, the tribe has had repeated disputes with the town and has seen its land steadily shrink to its current 900-acre reservation.

It has sued seeking reparations and the return of thousands of acres, including the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, where the U.S. Open has been played five times.

Of the tribe’s 1,600 members, some 720 live on the reservation, where the median household income is about $30,000, less than a third of the median income in surrounding Suffolk County.

The tribe’s existing income streams range from the annual Labor Day powwow to smoke shops selling untaxed cigarettes to the large electronic billboards on tribal land along Sunrise Highway.

Casino revenue would help economic development and welfare on the reservation by funding social programs and improvements as well as creating jobs, Polite said.

The possibility of cash stipends for families has not been decided yet, but casino revenue would help the tribe expand its family assistance fund to help members with such expenses as rent, food, utilities and car payments, he said. Money would also go to a new recreational center and expansion of the tribal security force, Polite said.

“It’s significant revenue for us, and it will make an immediate impact and change the quality of life here overnight,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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