For Lydia M. Gumbs


am so grateful to be part of this crucial and loving conversation in honor of a crucial and loving book which documents a crucial and loving process between and through Robyn and Leanne, sister exemplars. I am honored by your invitation. But that is not why there are tears in my eyes.

There are tears in my eyes when I open and reopen Rehearsals for Living. And not only because of the tragedies you both recount, and not just because of the vulnerability you share, and not simply because your record of loss is my record of loss, but because this book is what I have always needed.  A Black Indigenous Love Story. I have needed this story, this possibility, this turning towards for longer than I have needed breath. I have needed this space for centuries. Thank you, Robyn. Thank you, Leanne. And thank you to all of your ancestors and everyone who loves you. Thank you.  

I have needed this book for centuries because my story as a Black feminist of Shinnecock ancestry has historically been the opposite of this story. Or to be more accurate, the suppression of my story as a Black feminist of Shinnecock ancestry has been the impossibility of this story. But it’s not impossible. So now I can speak.


What I want to use the few minutes that I have today to do is to just bring you to where I am in my journey towards telling another story, a Black Indigenous Love Story, a part of the loving story you have convened with your vision, intention and communication across everything. This is where I am.  

Two months ago, on what would have been my grandmother Lydia’s 105th birthday, I found a book in the Library of Congress that I wanted to destroy. I wanted to be able to destroy it. I wanted not to need it. I’m angry that an encounter and some digital photocopying of this book was in fact one of the greatest gifts my grandma Lydia, a self-identified West Indian woman of Shinnecock heritage, could give me on her own birthday.  

The book, written almost a hundred years ago, in 1924, is called “An Ancient Village Site of the Shinnecock Indians.” It was published as part of a series of anthropological papers commissioned by the American Museum of Natural History. Stealer of bones. The author of this book is Mark Raymond Harrington. An anthropologist who studied at Columbia University under Franz Boas, like Zora Neale Hurston, almost a hundred years before I would wander those same Schermerhorn halls. He curated the museum at the University of Pennsylvania (stealer of bones), 60 years before my father became a student there. Mark Raymond Harrington dug through shells and photographed fish hooks made from antlers and pipes. He photographed the noses and lips and eyes of elders on Shinnecock lands. Why do I need his book when we have language reclamation and Algonguin language at the Labor Day Pow wow and a replica wigwam on the shore and beadworkers, wampum workers, visual artists, cultural workers, remembering, organizing and building? When we have Beloved Shinnecock artist Jeremy Dennis (2016) revisualizing the stories. When we have Brilliant Dr. Kelsey Leonard (2021) fighting for the rights of the water?

I still need the book that I cannot afford to hate because of every stolen thing. Because of the country clubs, the third mansion homes, the real estate covering over “the site of an ancient Shinnecock village” in what the New York elite call “the Hamptons.” The shoreline that makes their unsustainable New York City lives bearable.

It is my commitment to write a million poems for every shell described in this book. It is my destiny to write a praise song for every photographed elder. It is my reclamation to pull these words apart and hold them close to me and hold them far away from me in every configuration. It is my sincere intention to transubstantiate this artifact into a gift for all of our generations. But I’m not there yet.

I am only here. In the place where I can articulate my urge to rip the pages. Name my desire to chew them up and spit them into the faces of all the trustees of the American Museum of Natural History and the Library of Congress. And so, following the bravery and intimacy I found in the pages of Rehearsals for Living I am going to share the parts of Harrington’s (1924) text that I want to erase.

On page 283:

“…the Shinnecock kept their ancient culture, if not their blood, pure to the last.”

“Some of those left behind intermarried with negroes, a phenomenon seen among several remnants of Atlantic Coast tribes and among some Muskegan peoples, but exceedingly rare elsewhere, fortunately for the future of the Indian race.”

Page 279 again:

“There has been a heavy infusion of white blood too, but affairs had progressed so far that when I paid my first visit to the Shinnecock ‘reservation’ in 1902 the place appeared to be a negro, or rather mulatto settlement, pure and simple.”

Or on page 280:

“Very likely the destruction of the ‘flower of the tribe’ left the negroid mixed bloods in the majority in the settlement, which was so distasteful to the remaining Indian families that all who were financially able moved away.”

Or page 279 again:

“Certain it is that the African mixture has lost for the Long Island survivors the respect and support of the Iroquois tribes who now will not recognize them in any way and will not even admit that there is any Indian blood left in Long Island.”

And it’s not that I am surprised. I don’t have to go to a book written a hundred years ago to know of the relationship between anti-Blackness and intercommunal refusal to recognize the Shinnecock nation as a nation. For those who do not know, Shinnecock was not recognized by this colonizing government until Oct 1st 2010 (See Strong 1998, Jensen 2015).[1] No, I am not surprised.

But when I hold this book, I am feeling generations of rage for the violence of the “preservationist” Mark Raymond Harrington and what he defines as the great tragedy of Shinnecock Blackness.

In his book the great tragedy of Shinnecock Blackness looms larger than colonization itself. Larger than the signing of a shady land deed to the so called founders of what would become Southampton, larger than the fact that Southhampton put laws on the books forcing Shinnecock residents to kill their dogs, larger than the law that said that Shinnecock residents could be whipped for continuing the centuries-long practice of digging for groundnuts, larger than the fact that it was our Shinnecock ancestors who had to pay reparations after an uprising where they burned some new Southhampton buildings in breach of the deed, or that that Shinnecock ancestors had to plead for the right to continue their practice of including beached North Atlantic Right Whale relatives in ceremony, or even the fact that so many Shinnecock were left without other options and forced assimilate into the brutal colonial whaling industry.

The greatest tragedy for Harrington is not even the fact that in 1876 when a boat called the Circassian was led by the arrogance and miscalculation of its captain up against Shinnecock Bay rocks in the freezing cold, a critical mass of the men of Shinnecock community (not according to Harrington but according to Shinnecock elders) were forced at gunpoint to go on an impossible rescue mission in which all but one of them died.

And the terms of the “infusion of white blood” that Harrington writes about? That is also not the tragedy. Not all intermarriage is threat to the so called “Indian Race”, according to him. The word tragedy would certainly not apply to Harrington himself, who married an Iroquois woman a couple of months after his first wife died from some mysterious short illness. Would it?

No. For Harrington the greatest threat, the major tragedy of the Shinnecock of Long Island is that my ancestors have become… me. In his version of the story, it is not White Supremacy that causes genocide, disappearance, misrecognition, untraceability. It is Black love.

The great tragedy, great loss to the “future of the Indian race” according to this stealer of bones, is the Black Indigenous love story. The constituting love story of my life. And it is not only white anthropologists who have believed that Black love is the greatest danger and acted accordingly. There is an impossible love story that stops in my throat when I even try to say who I am.

And I want to tell that love story. I want to create whole operas and romance novels and epic poems that ask what if this love was exactly what our ancestors wanted, guided us into, pleaded for? What if the most loving adaptation to realities of enslavement and genocide was to come together as ancestrally reverent lovers and survive? What if it was multiple forms of African wisdom that allowed my ancestors to stay Shinnecock? What if it was lifetimes of Shinnecock wisdom that enabled my ancestors to stay Black? What if the whales themselves gave instruction for my ancestors to do what they had to do to create a Black feminist wild enough to listen for this?

I still don’t know how to tell that story. I am reckoning with the silence and shame and grief and loss around this story in my family. I am quietly listening to a broader Indigenous community that defines Indigeneity parallel to Blackness and fears my intersection. I am slowly building the relationships that allow me to participate in ancestral honoring as someone who did not grow up in the community of Shinnecock and whose connections come nowhere near blood quantum. I am parsing how relationships with living relatives and ancestral reverence can transform everything I do. I am still learning what that means in terms of accountability and possibility. If my grandmother had wanted to enroll she was too early and too late, there was no recognized nation. But I know that my responsibility to my ancestors and to Shinnecock community must go beyond anything a settler state could ever recognize. I must be guided by exactly the love the stealers of bones most fear.

Instead of an identity, I am here claiming my assignment. It is my task to live this love story of soul reversal undying hearse uncursing overturning love.

I’m still learning how to do that living.  

This is the rehearsal.


Dennis, J (2016) On This Site. Shinnecock, Long Island, Self-Published.
Harrington, MR (1924) An Ancient Village Site of the Shinnecock Indians. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute.
Jensen, B (2015) Images of America: Shinnecock Nation, Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.
Leonard, K (2021), “WAMPUM Adaptation framework: eastern coastal Tribal Nations and sea level rise impacts on water security” Climate and Development, 13:9, 842-85.
Maynard R, Simpson LB Simpson (2022) Rehearsals for Living. Chicago IL: Haymarket Books.
Strong, JA (1998) “We Are Still Here!” The Algonguian People of Long Island Today. Interlaken: Empire State Books.  

[1] Shout out to cousin Lance Gumbs, first Shinnecock leader of the inter-tribal council.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a queer Black feminist love evangelist of Shinnecock ancestry and author of several books, most recently Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. Alexis is the recipient of the 2023 Windham-Campbell Prize in Poetry.