Bryan Polite | Shinnecock Tribal Chairman
Jeremy: Would you introduce who you are and your title in your nation?
Brian: Sure! I am Chairman of the Council of Trustees, which is the head of the Shinnecock Indian Nation government.
J: And we are sitting now in your business, do you want to talk a bit about where we are?
B: Sure, we are currently in Raindrops Cafe. We do table cuisine, we have coffee from over three continents that we road right here. Everything is organic. We also have Indian artwork throughout the cafe and it’s a nice place to come to sit, drink coffee, and feel good.
J: When is it open for business?
B: It’s open actually, for the last month, from six in the morning to three in the afternoon, and we do special events. We also rent it out as a hall for special events for people. Birthdays, wedding showers, things of that nature.
J: Besides being a Tribal Chairman and the business, are there any other things you want to mention that identify you?
B: I am a very enthusiastic horticulturalist, I used to have a pretty big commercial greenhouse operation. Although I sold the greenhouse, I’m still in love with horticulture and planting, growing, gardening.
J: How many years ago did that start for you?
B: Back in 2010 when I came home from Florida where I was at law school for a year. I started out as a hobby, then went and got a certificate in ornamental horticulture from Farmingdale College. After that, built the greenhouse and after that, it was love at first sight.
J: Did you have a team help you?
B: One of my good friends Albert Zelinsky helped me a lot, then my friend Ray Welling, his family owns the Green Thumb and Halsey Farms so a combination of them, my cousins Mataukus and Sean actually build the structure. We had friends come over and weed, and prune, and cut, and harvest – it used to be a really nice place where people came and relax then help around the farm. Then we had around one hundred chickens at one point, twenty turkeys, all together two-hundred birds at the peak, a nice operation.
J: Nice, how did you go from law to horticulture, to tribal politics?
B: Honestly, the thing that is very similar to law and horticulture is research. Researching, attention to detail with the plants, again, with the gardening, I kind of got into it and was fascinated with plants, but then I started getting fascinated with the science behind plants. Just kind of clicked. As far as the tribe, I always look at community building or public service kind of as similar to horticulture where you have to constantly cultivate things, and grow and check it out, prune stuff. The whole process of getting to that end goal of harvesting the fruits of your labor. I take a similar approach when it comes to governing. Helping people out and seeing a project through from start to finish that helps people. Like I said, its rewarding to help people and also rewarding to provide fresh food straight from the earth with no chemicals/pesticides made from love. That’s also a passion of mine – it goes hand and hand.
J: Do you mind mentioning the previous years and experiences in tribal politics before?
B: This is my third term as a Trustee and second term as Tribal Chairman. I took a two-year hiatus, well, not really a hiatus at the time. I served my nation and wanted to do other things that required my time. That time period to now in office, I feel it’s completely different, I learned so many lessons from the last time, and also I had the opportunity to be on the outside looking in and seeing the shortcomings of the prior administration, that I was a part of, but then being able to understand that being outside of the bubble has helped me immensely in this new term.
J: Part of this interview process is focused on living on and off the reservation, 10 years ago, was that all off the reservation?
B: Yeah, it’s been on and off since high school basically. I came back around 2001 when I graduated, went to college for a year and a half in Pennsylvania at Kings College. Then I went to the city to John Jay College for the rest of my years and then I was here for about a year. Then I went to Connecticut where I was a police officer at Mashantucket, I was communicating back and forth. Then went down to Jacksonville, Florida to go to a year law school and came back to Shinnecock – that was back in 2007.
J: Wow, that’s amazing.
B: Ha, oh actually that was 2008.
J: Tribal Chairman is the highest rank in Shinnecock…
B: Elected Official.
J: Elected Official – how does that feel, or can you think back before you became it?
B: Well – Yeah, my view of ( I don’t like to call it politics, but it is I guess) public service, and the thing is that I am always honored and humble by is the support of the community members that put their trust in me to carry out what their will is. I think of it more as duty, giving my family background, I just feel like continuing another generation of leaders that helps out and goes out into the community and tries to bridge the community between the outside and Shinnecock and really help people.
Jeremy: Do you, as a tribal member, go out into the world and represent Shinnecock, ‘Indian-ness’, or however you describe it?
Brian: Well, I think the first thing is education, and obviously with Shinnecocks, we don’t always look the part when we go out into the world, so when you tell someone you’re from Shinnecock, the first thing is they’re like, “Shinne-who, where?” and just spreading awareness. We have such a deep history and it goes back so far. Once you start teaching people about our history, for me its really cool because you see their face go from, “Well, I don’t know these people,” to “Wow, really? You guys have been there that long and still have your aboriginal territory?” So, when I go out prior to being on Council, I’d always educate people. Now, I always feel it’s my responsibility to do that when I go out into the outside world and represent Shinnecock in the best light.
J: This is a two-part following question, are there any anecdotes, like stories you tell, that help other people better understand who we are?
B: Yeah, there’s a kind of condensed timeline I give people, major events that are important for people to know;
Starts in 1640 which is basically the first contact.
Then in 1701 where we got the West Woods property with a legal land transaction.
1792, when the Trustee system was forced upon us by the NYS Legislature.
1859 when they took the [Shinnecock] Hills from us in that illegal land transaction.
1924, when actually this is not just Shinnecock, but all Native Americans were considered American citizens.
1937 when the BIA, a year after the intercourse act, the BIA came out and said a bunch of horrible things about us that were documented, but we checked off everything on the category but they said we look too much like negros. That is a really important date I tell people because the BIA has actually apologized by the racist remarks they did in that report.
Follow that up by the land battles of the later 1940s early 1950s with the real estate agencies on the highway.
Another major event that I look at is 1994 when women got the right to vote, which I always thought that was a little crazy. That ties back to 1792 when they took away our traditional way of governing and forced a Trustee system upon us. One thing that happened was that women didn’t get the right to vote from 1792 to 1994.
And then we made our land claims in 2006 and finally when we passed our constitution in 2013.
So, obviously I go into a lot more details on those events but its a really condensed timeline in Shinnecocks history.
J: Because of who we are as a people, I feel like history is so important to sharing our identity, was there a moment where you kind of buckled down and thought I had to memorize and understand it more?
B: I am always trying to understand more about our history. In general, I love history, all history. It’s very cool that I am actually a part of a history that I think rivals some of the most interesting intriguing histories in the world, be it European or anything. I mean, Shinnecock history is deep, its fascinating, and we’re a part of it and that makes it awesome. So its more of me wanting more, more, more and more.
J: All these answers are leading me to great questions; would you like to, if you had the budget or time for it, have a youth program that helps the next generation to help what you know?
B: Absolutely, we come from an oral tradition of storytelling and passing history down, being in the generation we live in now, we need to expand on that. Now only doing what you’re doing what you’re doing now, but using technology to really record these stories and history to pass it down.
As youth up here, you get frustrated at not knowing yourself identity with the outside, but I honestly believe if the young people learn more about our history, it would give them more of a sense of pride. Because it’s such a fascinating history. So absolutely. I think that’s really important to have those kind of programs and the fund those kinds of programs.
J: Yeah, well, history is one way to reinforce that we are in like the sense of belonging. Do you have any specific instances outside of like the BIA in abstract terms where you were kind of prejudged for your parents rather than who you are?
B: Outside of the BIA?
J: Or just the example that you gave in the report?
B: Oh, well, yeah. I mean, when I went to the police academy, I was prejudged. You got a lot of out-west Natives out there at the police academy. So, I mean, I can’t really say this on [recording]. Yeah. So you know what I’ll say it and if it’s too harsh, edited out, but anyway, the big police academy out in Artesia, New Mexico is a Federal Law Enforcement Training Academy. It’s a four month program. You get tribal police from all over the country, but mostly from out west. And there was this guy from the Kickapoo tribe named Pond Killer, really crazy name. Anyway, it was this was six weeks into the academy and we had all went through like basic ‘Hell Week’, basically. And everybody kind of got a feel for each other. We were out having a good time in a bar and he came up to me and he was like, “playa I gotta tell you, at first I thought you were a nigger, but now I know you’re a true native,” and that was kind of, you know, was kind of funny, my response was, you know, well, I always knew I was native – you guys and once you got pushed off your land, not us.
I think though even more than that, I’ve been all over The world I’ve been to Egypt, I’ve been to Europe, I’ve been to places, and I always think sometimes I prejudge somebody. And then you know, once you see somebody and you sit down, you’ll find a lot of times you’ll find that you have a lot of things in common with people. And our native brothers and sisters out west. A lot of times I think, not all of them, but a lot of times prejudges Shinnecocks.
J: That’s a great answer. And thanks for being so honest.
J: This is such a common thing. Even today, someone’s like, I’m not Native American. I’m Dominican.
B: Yeah, yeah.
J: Was there a time where you did want to live off the reservation and maybe had a job opportunity or a place to live and just decided to stay home or not?
B: Well, one of the things – one of the big reasons why I’m here right now and probably not, besides from Tribal government when I got involved, but the thing that really kind of made my decision was when my mom needed help with the business that I’ve been a part of, you know, on and off all my life but I really started getting more into running it with her than just working for her. And at the time she was you know, she was tired – she was here all the time. So once I started doing that, I’m kind of tired now because I have, you know, I have a lot of responsibilities not just for the tribe but also for my family and keeping this place up and running. And which has its own set of you know, obstacles.
B: So, the potential is awesome and that’s something that, you know, this is kind of been a labor of love. The cafe over the last two years because really reinvented the whole kind of place but it was always centered around, you know, the roaster back there. And that’s another aspect of life that I forgot to mention is coffee.
Roasting and really love the different bean profiles from all different, you know, countries. It’s really interesting how coffee can really be a conduit into the culture of a region.
J: Yeah, love to see this place just packed everyday.
B: Yeah, exactly. And it’s been cool. The events that we’ve had here, like we had our Game of Thrones season premiere Party, which is amazing, you know, had a lot of people, people dress up, we’ve had birthday parties. You know, we did a Mother’s Day brunch for all the ladies in my family and anybody else who came, it was the first time that my grandmother had all of her eight kids here at one time, so we’ve had some really good memories here already. And that’s the kind of vibe that you know, I want for the place and it’s been a labor of love. Like I said, it’s been awesome.
J: I’ve seen it go for sort of like a supermarket.
B: Yeah, yeah.
J: Was it always under your family?
B: Um, actually the house was purchased by my aunt Holly back in ’95 from Miss gardener. Forgot her name but she’s the grandmother of Troy Gardner, Troy Gardner’s mother’s mother. And then my aunt hired my mother to run the place. And that was up into 2006. And then my aunt wanted to move on to other things. My mom bought her out and that’s when Raindrops was, because it was Thunderbird coffee before was Raindrops Quick Stop, and then my mom built to drive-thru in 2006. And I’ve always kind of lived here on and off even when it was under my aunt, me my cousin used to live upstairs. I worked at Thunderbirds since I was 14. So it’s always kind of been the house that I know.
J: Love it, keeps growing. So were you born on Shinnecock or the East End?
B: No, actually, I was born on a military base in Huntsville, Alabama. Yeah, my mom – my biological father was in the military and was on a base. And then soon after my mom divorced and when we moved to Fort Lauderdale, then to Miami, then around six I came up to New York. Yeah.
J: Then to live on the reservation?
B: No, I first we live in Calverton, actually. But I mean, we were constantly on the reservation at that point. I didn’t move back on to the reservation until I was in ninth grade in high school, which was around 1996/95. Yeah.
J: Do you have any early memories that you want to share from that time?
B: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it goes before moving up here. Because there were times where my mom – she was going out with my brother’s father, Phil Brown, and we lived there and I forgot about that. So I guess that was the first time we lived on the res and that was when I was around eight. I just remember the first experiences, it was just like amazement that those is free open and of course, back then there wasn’t as many houses as there were now so it was really like just, you know, trees and bushes to eyes can see and hang out with your cousins going, you know, quads and dirt bikes and go karts and really like having a great experience just being free with a whole bunch of new people that I didn’t really interact with before. I knew my cousins and stuff, but like all the new people that I was meeting and really learning that, you know, Shinnecock is something different than everything else. It was really cool. So that was, you know, my first memory was just the wide openness of everything and kind of just the air of Shinnecock just being on Shinnecock was awesome. Yeah.
J: That’s really well said – just because so many people are asking, “Are you guys still in wigwams?”
J: We might shift a little bit towards politics. You don’t have to go too deep reveal too much. But maybe because we’re doing this interview on this day, and we kind of made history on the highway, is there anything that, maybe, that you always say to the press or anything you want to say to summarize what happened?
B: Yeah, well, I think it’s become so much bigger than a sign, and I think that’s why the community has been so galvanized by it. I mean, there’s people, myself included, that still have issues with the way that the contract was signed, but that’s a procedural process thing.
I think the one thing that I’m proud of is that the people have really shown resiliency and coming together for a common cause and the power that that can actually – the things that you can accomplish with that kind of power of unity has been amazing. As well as, you know, seeing our tribal seal 60 feet in the air, overlooking all of the land that used to be once ours, and letting people know that we’re still here.
The advertisement part of it is what people don’t understand. The resources and revenue that comes from that is also going to allow us to improve our community. And that’s, you know, at the end of the end of the day, it’s not taking up that much space, all of the ridicule I think unfairly that the nation has received the mis-characterizations of our people, of our heritage, has also shown people that look, I mean, this is 2019, and people say that racism is it’s still a thing, or this isn’t still a thing. Well, it is. And, you know, we live in the most wealthiest places in the world, and we’re fighting. When we do do something like this, when we go up against the powers that be, we’re not just fighting, you know, local government or, you know, some place in Tennessee, you’re talking about the most rich, powerful men in the world. And if they’re coming against you, it kind of feels like the world’s against you.
J And you started this answer by saying that it brought the community together. In your time in the Trustee and Tribal Chairman role, were there other examples you want to highlight that brought the community together?
B: Well, Powwow obviously always brings people together, but it’s for a couple of days. I mean, this is, for me when I first came into office, it was during a very tumultuous period in our history. I mean, the government had just collapsed, basically. There was a removal. We had just spent, you know, north of $80 million on a failed casino project that left a lot of divisions in the tribe. Cousins that didn’t talk to cousins. Literally, the state police were, you know, constantly being called to the tribal offices because people were fighting each other on the constitution. That got marred in controversy because of the time period. So you got people who didn’t even recognize it. You had people who always second guessing whatever the government was doing. And again, at the time, the community I think, was not as divided as it was during the gaming days, but it was certainly still in the aftermath of a pretty, you know, shocking, I guess, turn of events that happened to Shinnecock and that was in the beginning of the decade and the cool thing about it all is the beginning of the decade was marred in controversy. And we’re coming out of this decade, you know, with a little bit of momentum, and a little bit of more hopefulness I think for the future.
So no, this is the first time I’ve seen the community this unified, consistently for a common cause in, I don’t know, when’s time. Probably since our push for federal recognition?
J: And you mentioned the Powwow in your answer. Do you want to speak a little bit about your role during that four day event?
B: Sure. Well, I mean, historically, my great grandfather always had a pretty big role in the power so it’s a pretty big thing for all Shinnecocks, but specifically, I always feel a sense of pride and duty in the Powwow. My family’s always been constantly involved in the Powwow. As as a tribal official, my role is more on being responsible, and the council, being responsible for all the visitors that come to our territory during that weekend. So security plans logistics, constantly being on call, responding to issues, making sure that the nation, you know, extends the hands the hospitality, but also make sure that they protect everybody that comes on and off the territory.
So, you know, I kind of, last year when I wasn’t a trustee actually didn’t even go to Powwow that much. Because it was like a year that I just wanted to kind of be able to go down there, buy a couple of things, and then not have to deal with like the crazy stuff.
J: So we talked a little bit about your early life and political career. Do you want to talk a little bit about the future, whether it’s like a personal goal after a year serving or anything that you want to an office in the future?
B: Yeah, I mean, my whole thing with with public service again, and with being on Council in general, I don’t see myself being on council consistently unless I’m needed. I’d kind of like to help build things up where there’s new blood in there, people come in. My real personal goal for the nation is just to be able to build a system that we’re all – that we can all be a part of. That’s not perfect, but it gets the job done. We have programs and raise our standard of living. If that’s accomplished in a couple of years, great. Because I’d really like to concentrate, you know, on my personal life.
And then I have a love of snowboarding and mountains, and I’d really like to start doing my business plans up in Vermont and doing vacation. Specialty vacation homes, geodesic domes, things of that nature, giving people with different experience. Yeah.
J: And does that mean taking this business up there?
B: This means starting a cafe up there? Sure. That’s a goal of mine to basically create new ways that people can enjoy things like a cafe, but I want this to be more of an interactive cafe where you’re learning things and there’s events. So my vacation homes would be not the typical, you know, log cabin, but itself, the structure of a geodesic dome is amazing. It’s an awesome and gives great light and, and it’ll be new and I’ll have artwork, you know, native artwork in there and just trying to give people different experiences for sure. I definitely want to start another cafe up in Vermont, which I love. I love I love the community up in Vermont. I love the vibe. I love the mountains. Yeah.
J: And he chose that because of the mountains and snowboard?
B: Um, I love snowboarding in general and I do love going out to Colorado and in Tahoe and places like that. But clearly, that’s far. The thing I love about Vermont and it’s six hours away. It’s not that far. It’s beautiful country up there. The people are really nice, and they have some really nice mountains for East Coast. And I’ve just always felt at home there. Home away from home, because obviously this is my home. But I feel I love the mountains. I just love the air up there. And I love, again, the whole vibe of the lodge and everything is awesome.
J: That’s great. And you said that as long as there’s a need for you to be in that leadership role you’ll serve. Do feel like there’s something beyond like the basic needs and housing?
B: I mean, there’s a lot of things that need to be addressed that structural things, especially the structure of the government itself needs to be you know, in place, otherwise, you’re not going to be able to put anything or build anything on top of it. Self sustaining or being economically self sustaining, creating businesses, instead of getting more grants, we want to create more businesses so that we’re constantly looking for new business opportunities to provide revenue for the nation.
And then once we get more revenue, we can actually start addressing getting back more of our land that was taken from us and through the courts, but this time to actually just outright purchasing and back. And then, you know, trying to get a designated backing into that Aboriginal status as a goal. And obviously, that’s not going to be accomplished in a couple years. But, those kinds of things where we’re actually, you know, police department, tribal courts, really trying to get together the things that will make a government have some longevity.
J: That’s great. And because we do need a police department, and because of your personal experience, do you think he might be involved or be that I will be involved>
B: I will be involved in the policy as a tribal leader, I will be involved with correcting some of the mischaracterizations of tribal police that some tribal members think because we are a very unique tribe where we really never had any kind of law enforcement as far as uniform patrols and stuff of that nature where most tribes and United States have had tribal police forever. So, kind of being a guy who’s been there before, been in a tribal police department, and then being able to express my experiences to the community to kind of alleviate some of the misconceptions of it being like a Gestapo kind of organization, which it’s not. But as far as being involved in the PD – no. I hung up my PD days a long time ago. Yeah.
J: Where did you actually serve? I was a police officer over Mashantucket. Yeah, for two and a half years.
J: Okay. Do you find any clues as to why they need police versus why Shinnecock, for some reason, exists without it?
B: Well, it’s it’s two different tribes. I mean, they weren’t officially a tribe again until 1980, I think six or 1985. Ronald Reagan signed them into law basically to Federally recognize them through that process. And before that, the lands was always patrolled by their local PD or something like that. And they didn’t have a reservation like we have. Other tribes have had tribal police departments before. I think Shinnecock is always had the state police. And yes, the state police does have jurisdiction up here. But it’s it’s a difference between having a jurisdiction and actually, you know, foreign patrols. We don’t have foreign patrols where you’re constantly seeing cops just ride around, kind of like a beat. The only time cops come up here is if they’re looking for somebody or they’re called.
So we’re very unique in that that sense. And I think it’s going to be somewhat of a culture shock. But the only thing that I say the people that when it’s a culture shock is now are you you’re not gonna be allowed to drive drunk all over the place anymore. I think that’s something that we can all agree on. One, not a good thing anyway. But no, you’re not going to be able to do some of the stuff that you thought. But that goes along with the social contract where, you know, you got to give up some things in order for, you know, the greater good of the community and the public’s safety of the community.
J: So we did want to get a little bit into how you might predict where we’re going in terms of like business.
B: So, I think we’re on track to actually surprise a lot of people and the sign thing is just one of actually many economic projects going. The cigarette business under the Shinnecock sovereign holdings and Shinnecock sovereign distribution is flourishing. They’re sitting on a significant pile of investment funds. There’s a new board that’s ready to do some exciting new business ventures. So, I think the future, if we continue to use process, understanding where we come from as our heritage, but using process and procedures to really enhance the organization and these business opportunities, I think Shinnecock is on the path for some good economic – good economic future.
J: One thing I always ask is, do you want to have a closing message or it could be something like, what your hopes are coming out or something like that?
B: Yeah, well, one of the things that I’d really like to see is the youth up here actually aspire to greater heights and just give them the message that they know that being Shinnecock in and of itself makes you very special. You’re one of only 1500 people in the world that can call themselves Shinnecock, and that alone should make them prideful. So that’s the message I’d like to end on. It’s just a message of hope and unity for the community, but also encouragement and having the youth reach for higher aspirations.
Chief wickham cuffie was my great grandfather. He was a full blooded shinnecock Indian. Chief Frederick cuffie was my grandfather. He also was a full blooded shinnecock Indian