Chenae Bullock is a Shinnecock Tribal Member, historian, activist, Powwow dancer and vendor. In our interview, she spoke about her experience living on and off the reservation, the DAPL Water Protectors, and her life on the water.
Chenae: My name is Chenae Bullock, I am the daughter of Ester Lee, granddaughter of Ferdinand and Thelma Lee of the Shinnecock Tribe. I am an activist, traditionalist, historian, and indigenous woman.
I currently do work within heritage and cultural preservation.
J: Can you talk about recent activism work? Perhaps even today!
B: I will say that most of the activism work started for me, I mean, all my life, but like, independently and just kind of on my own, like, when I started paddling, you know, and just being in the water and understanding like, you know, our water rights, you know, and so actively paddling and activating our rights and exercising our rights. And then just, working with those that are fighting for clean water, and our community not having access to water, of course.
The big Dakota Pipeline Access Pipeline that united indigenous tribes all over the world because we came together and realized that what we all share is clean water, you know, and that’s something that we have to preserve and protect.
J: You went to the DAPL protest and out in
J: Can you talk just very briefly about what that experience was like?
C: Well, I will say like the first time that I had been out there it was – we had got a call here on Shinnecock and our sister tribes. It was during our Powwow Labor Day weekend. We were actually in the grand entry. We’re in line, Saturday night grand entry. And we had all like, we’re just waiting for grand entry to start and we’re all on our cell phones, looking at Facebook, looking at Instagram and Twitter, and it just started going viral that there were men, women, and children being like attacked by like pit bulls. You know, attack dogs. There at Standing Rock. And so the warrior society here, and several other different sister tribes, we just decided to drop everything like the day, two days after powwow and we just caravaned over there. We had six cars in one RV, you know, so there were like six tribes here that were represented from the east.
And when we got there, I mean, it was just really, even though everybody was coming together for like a really bad social injustice. It was still beautiful to see, like how all the tribes came together to share and to give medicine to one another for healing. You know, all the different songs that were being sung in the camp at nighttime, all the ceremonies, people were bringing about sacred items that hadn’t been brought out in like over 400 years to help bring healing into that part of the country because of the Missouri River. We are all affected by the Missouri River. Because here even in Long Island, we have whales that beach themselves ashore because of what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico and that Missouri River actually floods into the Gulf of Mexico and in certain times of the year and jet streams shoot up north here. So we’re all affected by it, you know.
And so I felt like it was just really impactful for our generations to experience something like that. We’ve never seen such a fight. So that was the first time I had went out and the second time I ended up staying for five months and things started to change drastically because we began to have like a lot of informants there. We had a lot of government agents that work there. A lot of people from DAPL disguise themselves as they were water protectors, but they weren’t. You know, there were a lot of women that were being raped, you know, in the camps. It was literally like, it just turned into like a serious like a battle zone. You know, we were surveyed like 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you know, we were pepper-sprayed. We were attacked physically. And it was just, it was really traumatizing to the point that the native vets that had a camp there actually held a meeting with all those that were going to the front line and they prayed over us and they told us that, you know, we were experiencing very similar experiences that they’ve had experienced during times of war. And they were just like, you know, telling us that you know, we need to be very cautious when we go back home away from you know, that camp to realize that not everybody’s going to fully understand like, the day to day things that we dealt with, you know, and it was very traumatizing but it really united us.
Even to this day, a lot of us still communicate, you know, when someone calls out and has a call to action, you know, we’re able to help spread awareness. We learn from so much from one another, we also begin to realize that the water crisis is not just happening in Flint, it’s not just happening with the Dine people, it’s not just happening with the people of the Hunkpapa or the people of Standing Rock, you know, the mere fact that we Shinnecocks are not able to access the beach. I had to text my cousins to see if we could bring the kids to the ocean today after what time, you know, but that makes us strong swimmers because you know, that tide starts coming in at a certain time and that’s the time that we’re able to go there without having to pay for our permits. But you know, it’s essential that we unite around water because at the end of the day that’s what sustains us, our bodies made up of, what, 85% of water, you know, and that was my experience at Standing Rock.
J: How long were you there?
C: So how was it for about five months. I went with a caravan with our tribe and sister tribes and I came back about after or two days after they had left because they, they left and I stayed and I got a ride back. Because I needed to really understand sometimes I feel like creator puts me in really tough situation sometimes for me to just kind of like evaluate what it is that I’m supposed to do to assist in helping resolve this issue. And who am I supposed to pray for? And how am I supposed to pray for what am I supposed to pray for? So I needed to stay just a couple more days and then when I came back, I stayed for a week and a half. And I held like a drive for clothes, food. I did some fundraising. I sat on a couple of different panel discussions to create awareness not only just as a native people but the archaeologists’ community because that was essentially what the big issue was, was that not only were they you know, going to drill in the water, but the Dakota Access Pipeline, the company, was actually desecrating graves. And the biggest question was, what are the archaeologists of the state of North Dakota doing about it? Because that’s illegal. So that was something that I wanted to bring to the archaeological network and community here in the northeast, and least to start getting that conversation going
J: I know you do a very region-specific research like genealogy and history, is there a certain way that you found to really communicate it so that – we’re such a small community and we have so many neighbors have you found a great way to link it to their experience or their perspective and try to get them interested?
C: You mean their sister tribes like across the pond?
J: Or just like the nonnative communities who they might not see as a benefit knowing our history?
C: Oh, yes. Well, I know one thing. An elder, a Narragansett elder had told me in a conference we were at, where we had a conference with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. And there were several tribal members from other tribes and myself, a couple of tribal members from this tribe. And everybody else was either archaeologists, marine archaeologists, scientists and you know, the nonnatives as we speak in academia. We all like right currently live in the same area. And then there’s this authoritative like, position that they seem that they were actually in overtop of us, but they’re not. But a lot of times they don’t realize that because they don’t know the true history of who we are.
They see the history, but they don’t see us connected to the history. So coming from us and teaching them about the genealogy specifically, like the geographical historical perspective is important that they hear it from us so that they know that we are connected to it and that we still preserve it and it is still in the present time. And it’s not like separate. A lot of times I find working with non-natives that they do talk about us in a past tense, they use that past tense terminology quite frequently and sometimes, if we’re not careful, it rubs off and we’re starting to talk about ourselves and our ancestors – not just necessarily ancestors but like the practices and the customs that we still do in a past tense. They don’t see need for a connection because they don’t see us having a connection. And I think it’s important for us to show them that we still have this connection. And that the mere fact that the local town governments, the state governments, and the federal governments and even the international governments – our tribes, specifically here in the northeast, are still considered an international government because of who we actually descend from.
That is important to not only reiterate but create awareness about especially when we’re brought to these town hall meetings or we sit on a board here or you know, we talked about that because especially here living in a colonial like area or being what is considered a colonial tribe, we are looked at historically as a colonial area. And so they pride off of the history of Southampton and the history of Long Island in the history of, you know, New England and we need to show them that there should be an equivalent pride for ours as well.
J: So well said. An interesting part of your perspective is that you go on and off the reservation a lot. And you’re always traveling in different states or different regions. Is there anything you want to talk about, kind of like the benefits of how you sometimes you miss home or sometimes you bring back things?
C: Yeah, actually, that’s why I’m home now. Because this is where, you know, this is where the medicine is. Essentially, like, my skin feels different. My hair lays different. Because of that, like my DNA comes from this particular part of the country. You know, it’s, it’s when I’m sick or when certain things are going on, you can’t necessarily get that everywhere you go. You know, and just also being around like-minded people that just understand it. You don’t have to explain it. You know, there’s something about the energy that when I come home, it usually happens when I get to like the Cross Island Parkway area like coming over the Hudson River or sometimes even like few parts of Jersey, you know a few parts, like right when I can see Manhattan or feel that water, I feel my ancestors strength. That’s how I feel that from here from there all the way up until like about New Hampshire, even to the mountains of like New York, in the mountains of Massachusetts, I feel all of like the energy from my ancestors and sometimes like, especially right now, currently.
Right now I’m in the south. I am in a very populated area where there are a lot of African American people, a lot of very successful, powerful, internationally successful African American people. And although I do identify myself as a Native American, indigenous Woman, as well as having African American heritage, I grew up with the teachings and the knowledge of my indigenous side. So there’s a lot of things that I just cannot completely relate to. And I feel sometimes like, a literally – like a sore thumb, if you will, and you know, in a community.
Whereas I pay more attention to the environment, I pay attention to the energy, I pay attention to the universe, and the times and the things that are going on that I’m looked at as like a weirdo. And I grew up like that, a lot of us can, you know, relate to that, but coming home allows me to kind of build that strength back up, to go back and continuously be that sore thumb to just even create awareness, you know, and to also give hope to those that are afraid to be who they are in such a group because they don’t want to be different, even though they are different, and then even coming home.
I want to give hopes to our tribal community, especially the young people that – I want them to know that there are other things besides just being here. I had lived here for many different years often on off and on, off and on, it’s really hard to find jobs, you know, you looked at as, okay, a $15, an hour, you know, type of job or you know, you have this kind of position, or you have this kind of position, but there’s nothing wrong with doing your own thing and being successful. And finding those that’ll support you in it, even if it’s outside. And therefore, that whole support system outside now becomes a support system of your community.
So the more places that I moved to, and I create those support systems, you know, anybody that wants to travel here or go here, go here, go here, now have that support system, and it’s not just about me, you know, and that’s something I have to say that I’ve learned from the mistakes of – I’m not saying current leadership of this community, but current leadership, in the sense that when I was younger, that was the type of leadership I saw. I saw selfishness. I saw people traveling and going here and going there and going here and going there and no one gave to those young ones that had – that just didn’t really have a clue. Sometimes you have to give a clue. So they can have something, you know, and I just want to be able to be the one that provides that clue. You know, for those that don’t have a clue the young ones.
J: Can you talk a little bit about, for the longest time, I knew you that you were working at the Pequot Museum? How did you transition from working there to going down to Georgia?
C: So, I’ve been working in public history for like 10 years here at the Shinnecock Museum, and then Plymouth Plantation, and then I was just kind of doing like a lot of freelance stuff. And then I had moved to work at the Pequot Museum. And I always say use the analogy of I walk in one moccasin on one shoe or one moccasin in one heel, because that’s exactly what it requires like, and that’s something that I told my co-workers, I’m not gonna be able to turn this Indian stuff off like it doesn’t. There’s no like, okay, I’m Indian one day and then one day, I’m not. No, this is literally who I am. And I happen to be able to do this at the same time.
So from the Pequot Museum, there were some things that were happening that the creator had just kind of tapped me on my shoulder and said, it’s time to go. And I had known that it was time to go, I was just being stubborn. And I just wanted so much for my people. I just wanted to keep trying and just wanted to do certain things. But you know, sometimes you just can’t be the one to force anything to happen. You just have to let it happen naturally.
So I did all I could I did a lot of research there for our family, our tribe, I was able to even help out with some of the legal litigation support that was going on with our beach access, even just our fight and trying to obtain or repatriate our ancestors, with some different historical docs documents having access to that. But I also want to do my own thing. So that way we don’t have to call on these non native agencies to support us.
There are several tribal members here that are starting their own legal firms as indigenous women and men, culturally. There are some things that I want to do with my own historic research firm. And so that way, those that are looking for that, especially when it comes time for building like, huge corporations like Home Depot, or Verizon, or these big huge corporations, that essentially the contractors and developers don’t have to outsource and go to a non-native firm to get Native information because it’s essentially the only accuracy they have is just through a degree.
They don’t really know anything about the culture. So I want to be able to provide a consultant firm that has the degree but also has the knowledge of the culture. And I feel like moving out of my territory, I’ll able to do that, you know what I mean?
J: And just to finalize or conclude the interview, I have either two questions.
The first one might be either, what’s one thing that you enjoy and one thing that you want to change on the reservation? Or the other one just might be like future plans for your own development or any projects?
C: One thing that I enjoy on the reservation is that there’s not a lot of development. At the same time, right, a lot of people complain because we can’t get it together and we can make a decision and – I mean if anybody is listening to this, you know, that is indigenous that comes from any reservation, you know, the whole term crabs in a barrel, you know, I think in a sense, for the sake of preservation of the land of certain sites, it’s actually a decent thing.
If we become like other tribes that have just become so assimilated and so colonized, that we wouldn’t be able to have some of these medicinal plants that are sitting right here in the background right now. You know, and that is because we can’t get it together. And I’m totally okay with that. I’m totally fine with that. I want to be able to walk on certain paths that my mother walked on that my she walked on with her mother and her grandfather and so forth and so forth and so forth, that haven’t been developed. I want that to still remain.
I do want us to be very educated on the outside so that we can protect what’s on the inside. And that, I mean, goes to show that in order to do that you have to be able to speak the language of what’s happening on the outside.
There is actually a Roger Williams, I’m just going to save this really quick. Roger Williams, who was a, I guess, a respected man among the colonists in New England. And I’m not gonna say well respected among the Narragansett, but understood among the Narragansetts, but he had translated many of our different tribal languages. Especially the Narragansett, he understood that language.
So there was a time there’s this is written account, that he actually spent time with the Narragansetts. And so there were two Narragansetts and himself, and an Englishman, and he interpreted the conversation between him and the Narragansetts to the Englishman. When the Narragansetts walked away, they were speaking a whole different language than he even understood, so he said, “Wait a minute. They’re speaking what I think, to me, is Narragansett, but then they’re turning around and speaking what to each other,” it’s important for us to be able to understand the language that we need to use to speak to the outside so that we can protect what’s here on the inside. And that’s something that I really hope for our young people. And I don’t mean just languages in like the English language, I mean language as in, the strategy that they’re using to destroy us is what we need to understand. Not so that we can help them destroy us. But for us to break that strategy and destroy that strategy from destroying us.
That’s what I hope for our young people hope that they can, you know, go and get educated, a hope that we can stop actually asking the government to uphold their so-called trust responsibility.
Our trust responsibility is in ourselves. And I think that that is what you know that I wish for our communities here.