Nicole Dennis Banks
Interview with my cousin Nicky Banks. We talk about his life, the reservation, and future projects. Please enjoy!
Nicole Dennis Banks: Aquay – My name is Nicole Dennis Banks. My native name is Shanowa, which means White Dove, and I am the daughter of Doreen and David, also the granddaughter of Avery “Chief Eagle Eye” Dennis. I took great honor in carrying on my grandfather’s legacy of becoming the first woman to be a tribal leader to the Shinnecock Nation.
My grandfather was a trustee for over 19 years. And he stressed to us the importance of always putting your people in your community first and giving back and that’s what I strive to do.
About five years ago, I started my own nonprofit organization, which was the Shinnecock Foundation of Arts, and it still thrives today, five years later. And what we do is we teach cultural enrichment and we feel that culture is prevention. To go back to our traditional ways and to know who we are is very important so that we empower ourselves to become the best people that we can be.
I go out now and I do a lot of activism for indigenous rights, environmental rights. I believe like most Native Americans believe that we have to be good stewards of this earth and protect Mother Earth for the next seven generations. With all, that’s going on with climate change, and now we have the epidemic with the deer. Here on Shinnecock, we are known as people of the stony shore. So the way that we survived was to live off the land. And we depend on all of nature’s resources, such as the resources that come out of the water, the shellfish and the fish will also depend on the animals that dwell here. The deer and the rabbit. I grew up eating a lot of these animals and I thank Mother Earth for that I thank the Creator for blessing us with these living creatures. And, you know, when we do take a life, it’s important that we bless that life and thank the creator for that and use as many of the parts that we can.
For instance, if we were to hunt deer, you know, it’s a blessing from the Creator, not so, you know, it’s very important that we take these blessings that the Creator has given us and we utilize them in a sacred manner, such as, if we were to go hunting, and we will hunt and kill a deer. That’s a life that we’ve taken a life that was given for us. It’s important that not only do we eat the meat, the venison, but we also use the skins. We use fur to keep us warm.
Our people have always been whalers. And when a whale happens to wash ashore, or when we go out and we hunt the whales, we take the baleen, and we also take the blubber, and all of these things, there’s more that we could do. And I think that going back to climate change, it’s important that we start recycling, and we start being conscious of what it is that we’re doing because it all affects everything. The whole ecosystem is being affected.
Right now, here, we’re located in one of the most affluent communities in the world, Southampton, Long Island, and with all the development that’s going on here, it’s unfortunate because the deer have nowhere to inhabit, they’re running rampant. They’re all over the place. The bees no longer pollinate. We used to have a lot of pussy willows and a lot of flowers, a lot of blueberries. Right here on my grandmother’s property, we used to have grapes and grapevines and you know, things just don’t flourish the way that they used to back in the day. And I pray to the Creator, and I pray that we all are very conscious of that and try to make a change so that those things can continue on and once again be flourishing and again for our children.
Jeremy: Every tribal member is going to have their own unique kind of location, like how we did with that special device (360 Camera). Maybe my next question is: Why did you choose this location for your portrait?
N: We are located here on the property of my grandmother Elsie Booker – actually my great grandmother, Elsie Booker, and this place brings back so many memories. This is actually the homestead of our family. My grandmother Elsie Booker was the matriarch of our family, and there was nothing that this woman could not do. She was definitely the strong Shinnecock woman that you would imagine a Shinnecock woman to be. She would make jellies and jams and homemade soups. Just when you walk into her house, you would smell the chicken stock and it’s just – I really miss being here. And I love every time I come here, I could smell all of those things that bring back my youth.
There used to be a lot of vineyards that grew here. And they were like vines, you know, the grapevine. So when I was little, we could swing from them. You know, the vines were so strong that they actually made like a playground. So you could walk on one like it was a trampoline, and then one was like a swing, and we would play there and the vines would grow up from the ground. Just when you’re a kid, you have such an imagination. So this was really a magical place. And it still is to this day.
Also, you have the waterfront here, we go down and we still go down today. And we still go down here today, and fish clam, you have mussels, oysters, all of those things during the summer seasons. We come down and we go clamming and fishing and have our cookouts here. It’s just a very, very peaceful place for me to be and for a lot of my family members to be so, we do congregate here often throughout the year and holidays.
J: Because they do so much public outreach and sort of like, Shinnecock to outside neighboring groups, what is one kind of misconception that you wish everyone listening to this audio would understand or learn?
N: Well, I would like to first say that I am a member of the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church, my grandmother, and their parents before them. We all worshipped in the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church. But myself, and everyone, I believe should be this way. I like to pray with those who believe in a higher power, I believe. Well, my grandfather, he would always tell us, you have to have faith in a higher power. And I have a strong faith and belief that there is one, the Creator, whether we call him Buddha, whether we call him Allah, whether we call him – I don’t know what you want to call him. But to me, he’s the Creator, and he’s God.
One misconception that I think people have is that these different sects, these different religions, these different cultures have People, I can’t really explain it, but what I want people to know is that we are all human. We were all created in God’s like, and we’re all different. And that’s beautiful.
One goal that I have is that I’m trying to bridge together the communities. If we just come together, we share so much commonalities. So many of us suffered the same historical traumas. And I think that what this world needs, especially in this political climate is healing, you know, and only together can we heal, and can we understand, and can we come to some sort of middle ground where we could relate to one another and understand each other’s plight.
So in order to do that, I think that it’s great to go out there and get to know the different cultures and their traditions and also educate them on our traditions and our way of life. Us being the first people, we’ve always welcomed the colonizers and everyone that came here on the territory. So I consider myself to be the welcome community. And I like to welcome anyone that I see, you know, welcoming, generous and giving. And I think as native people most of us did.
J: How did you get involved in the nonprofit like what was this idea that sparked that?
N: Well, my nonprofit organization is all about Wellbritey. I seen a lot of children on Shinnecock that will felt left out, did not feel included. Did not feel as though they had this stereotypical look is Native American. Therefore, they felt that they would not be accepted into the other organizations that are provided here. So I do outreach to those children. And what I aim to do was to empower them to build their self-esteem, to let them know that it’s not the color of your skin, but it’s the spirit within your heart.
So that’s what my program really did. We took a bunch of trips, and these trips were to other tribes and to museums, and just really formed a group that we could trust one another and share certain things that you normally wouldn’t share with outside. So my organization did everything that involved the arts, whether it be culinary arts, it could be, you know, playing the music. I had guest speakers that would come in. Robin Weeks was one of our speakers that came in. They talked about our students matriculating and getting a higher education, which is so, so needed here.
We really need people to go out there and get this education in this training and bring it back here to Shinnecock and share it with everyone. So I think that’s very important.
I know that when I was a youth, I made a lot of mistakes. So one of the goals of my program is to prevent youth from making the same mistakes that I did, and trying to show them the way without them having to learn from their own mistakes. So I would instill in them you have to get your permit. And before you start driving, get your full license and things like that. Also employment, about credit and bank accounts, things that some, some people don’t learn about to later on life and then it’s too late. So that’s what my program would do.
J: Do you have anything you want to announce? Sort of as like a public statement for your future projects or goals or things you want to change it and stuff like that?
N: Let me see what I want to change…
What I would like to see for the future of Shinnecock is basically to go back to where we were. Actually, growing up, there were so many things that actually developed and made me who I am. And I don’t see those things anymore. So I’m hoping to bring back, the love and the warmth and the sharing and the kindness and the forgiveness. I don’t see a lot of love here. I don’t know if I want to put that in the thing because I’m saying Nikki’s hate the game. What the hell is she talking about? She just kicked my ass last week.
J: Well, maybe a past example where you did see something that we really need to bring back? Because sometimes people don’t know that happened and they need to hear that.
N: One thing that I would like to see for Shinnecock is for us to start getting back into agriculture.
I remember growing up, we had uncle Earl, who had a field here, and he would raise bulls. This was actually a potato field. I see Eugene Cuffee over there, and he still does his farming. And that, that’s a wonderful thing. And I’d like to see more people getting into that because at the end of the day, that’s the healthiest way to live. You know, you want to go organic, you want to go green and do things from the earth. So I would love to see us start maybe a pilot program or farm or a community garden, which we did once have, but it kind of fell by the wayside.
But I would like to see more of that teaching our youth to grow, start with the garden of three sisters, the beans, the corn, the squash, I think it’s very important to know what the botanicals mean around here. And the medicines and what each herb can bring to us health one that’s the key to eat healthy and wellness.
J: This project is motivated by, or its purpose, is a profile of one individual. So I don’t know if there’s anything you want to add from your personal life, like, usually it’s like something you saw when you grew up, and then something changed. The reservation got some new feature or?
N: Yeah. Well, as you know, our reservation is roughly about 850 acres. And we are a peninsula – we’re surrounded by water. So we used to have more landmass and we’ve still further out into the water. But now due to erosions and storms, a lot of our landmass, we have lost that due to erosion.
So I would like to see even though we did receive a generous grant, I still would like to see us do some things to maybe help prevent that.
One thing that we have done was we planted the eelgrass we did add more sand to the waters. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to combat what’s going on in the world today. So I would love to see us come together and think of ideas to save our planet to save our Earth. I know that our environmental department has been doing some great things and they have some good initiatives out there as far as ending plastics and we have to be careful, you know, what we do, because it all affects us and has a reaction is a reaction in a repercussion. You know, something that’s very dangerous is what’s going on with our water.
We have to pay close attention to that. Look at what’s going on in Flint, Michigan. In New Jersey, you know, you have so many lead and poisons in the water. If our water supply were to go then I mean, we’d be going too.
J: One thing I remember recently and throughout the years, are the different New York City marches and other kinds of public awareness programs did. Did you want to talk about any, in particular, that may be like your first one or?
N: Yes, one of the things that I’m very involved in is prison reform. You know, a lot of our young men make mistakes and they were incarcerated and, you know, just the conditions that they are living in, in that prison, are inhumane. I recently just organized a march with the Metropolitan detention center in Brooklyn, I don’t know if people are aware, but over the winter, they will without heat, they will without lights they were without warm food.
And nowadays, you know, they will lock people up for treating an animal like that if you leave your dog outside, in cold temperatures, you go to jail. But yet here we have a disregard for human life. And I think that it’s very important that we speak up against that, and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
So anytime there is a life that’s in danger, it’s our duty to speak upon that, we’re here to help one another. If we each do a little no one has to do a lot.
J: And was that effort for Shinnecock tribal members or friends or family or who? Who was it particular that spark that?
N: Well, it just it wasn’t anyone in particular. However, my friend of mine, her son is in there which happens to be my granddaughter’s father. He’s in that facility. But even if he was not in that facility, I would still be there and make that one of my plates.
I also recently was one of the co-organizers of the first Indigenous people’s march that took place in DC, which was very successful. You know, we had a very nice turnout. And I think that all the people that came together with different voices, it was definitely heard throughout the nation.
One of the main issues is the missing, murdered Indigenous women. We want to know what’s going on with that. We can’t just have our sacred women going missing, our daughters, our mothers, without the government, you know, assisting and helping us to find out, you know, where we’re at with that.
J: I asked a lot about your current projects. Is there anything that I missed in regard to like, things you want everyone to know about, what you’re passionate about, or any of many side projects that you?
N: Well, I love to do a lot of things. I love to paint. I love art. I wish I had more time to sit back and do the things that I’m passionate about. But what’s rewarding to me is to help people to achieve and to do what they’re passionate about, and to help them to achieve their goals. That’s very rewarding too.
I do like to teach how to make traditional regalia and dance. I like music. So you will see me out there with a lot of artists back in the day. I used to be in the music industry. I had done a Kmart commercial with Timberland and you know a few other things that I had did in the industry. So I do have a passion for music. And I have a lot of friends in the industry so you’ll see me on occasion helping them out. Just recently, Wu-Tang Clan, celebrated the legacy and life of Ol’ Dirty Bastard who so happens to be Shinnecock. So I was asked to show up and do something in his honor. And I went out there and did a prayer and a dance for him.
So you see all these people coming out, indigenous and Native American affiliation, tribal affiliations, celebrities, but my thing is, it’s great to come back and when we have this type of prosperity, to help your people. I tried to make people mindful of their responsibility and it’s good to show love where we came from. What else have – I don’t know, I’ve done so freaking much.
The Woman’s March. That was a nice one.
J: Do you think the March is what you’re most proud of from all your projects? Or is there any moment where you thought like, Wow, this is amazing?
N: My most prideful moment. And I could say the best moment of my life is when I became elected as the trustee, the first woman trustee of the Shinnecock Indian Nation and I made history. That was my most prideful moment. And I could not believe that my people actually entrusted me to manage the nation. I serve two elective terms. And actually, in April, I’m going to be running again so wish me luck.
And I don’t feel that a title is really needed to do your part. So I won’t let a title stop me from helping my people. I’ve been very consistent with doing my part and I hope that others follow suit and do the same thing. Like I said if we each do a little no one has to do a lot.
J: I’m not as in touch with Trustee the system as I should be. But is there something you’re kind of like running on that we need that you being in leadership would help accomplish?
N: I think that the education system is failing our children. I know that the contract that we have with New York state needs to definitely be revised and looked over. There’s definitely need for some revision in that contract. Right now. Native American children are testing lower than any other demographic, including the Spanish children. However, I know that our district receives an astronomical amount of tuition dollars for each one of our children that go there. So I feel that they can be doing a better job of making sure that our children not only graduate, but also matriculate and matriculate on grade level.
Once our children go away to college, they’re in remedial classes which doesn’t go towards their major and then they’re also responsible for paying that money. So right out the gate they going in debt paying for just to be brought up to grade level. So I know that the school system and the education and something that I’ve also been very active in.
And I hate to hear myself talk. You know, our family has an issue with like communicating.
J: My life story.
N: Right! We’re smart as hell, but when we’re doing something like this.
J: Well are you doing pretty good!
N: Thank you.
J: It’s hard to do interviews, especially when it’s like a machine.
J: But one thing I want to ask is, towards the end of every interview, I usually asked, generally do you want to close it with anything?
N: Well, one thing that I would like to leave for the future generations is to cherish the moments that you have here on this earth, every day that we are here is a blessing. And we can be gone tomorrow. We are put here on this earth to do God’s will and to do good deeds, and not for our own selfish motives and reasons. So while we are here, let’s do our part. Let’s do good. And let’s give back.