Vincent’s portrait was part of Public Art Fund’s Art on the Grid exhibit throughout New York City. Read more here: https://www.publicartfund.org/exhibitions/view/art-on-the-grid-july27/
Vincent Cuffee – A Conversation
In this interview, I sit down with Shinnecock Tribal Member Vincent Cuffee to talk about his new chicken coop business, old memories on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, and future hunting centered social activities.
Vincent Cuffee: My name is Vincent Cuffee. My parents are Eugene and Mabel Cuffee. I’m born and raised here my whole life.
Jeremy Dennis: Do you mind describing yourself in terms of profession and maybe how you chose it?
V: I just like being outside really. Anything I do is outside. I’ve always been outside, you know, whether its woods or just out in the yard.
Recently, I’ve started chickens that’s become a new hobby. Another one is hunting – that’s been a big part of my life for a while now.
J: Well, not to jump right into it, but can you tell me again how you got into the chicken coop?
V: I remember being young, and we had pigs growing up. So that’s where I started from, learned from there, and listening to stories of my grandfather, who I never met.
He, unfortunately, he died when I was young. So I never got to really meet him. But I’ve seen, like, his own chicken coops and where he kept his cows and stuff like that. So just from a kid and just picked up.
I’ve had to probably own over 30 dogs, you know, from when I was young. So it’s just something that I picked up on.
J: And did your grandfather or father have chickens that you saw growing up? Or is that more of a recent more recent thing?
V: That became more of a recent thing.
J: And can you tell me again about the materials that you use?
V: Everything use plywood. I found an old fence. I built a chicken coop out of pallets, plywood and I found laying around. And I just that just came to me one day, I just felt like doing it. That’s where I got that from.
J: It’s really positive.
V: Probably more from my mom, her creative side.
J: What did your mom do that was creative?
V: We used to have a horse when we were young and I just remember her finding stuff. And, just, whatever you have, just build. Use what you have. Picked up on that.
J: One thing I noticed on the reservation, that’s true outside, is all the monuments that you see. So making something out of scraps – really cool. Did you learn how to keep the chicken coop in a certain style or did you get donations of chickens early on to start it out?
V: No, I actually bought them. I bought – I started out with six and built from there. And it’s kind of like you build as you go, you learn.
I lost. I lost some because I started out with six and then I got three more. And, you know, like I said you learn as you go. And it just came. I was just having fun. It just was like – I was bored one day.
J: Do they take up a lot of your time now that you have them?
V: No, they pretty much take care of themselves. Really – just some grain water mainly and everything else they do on their own.
J: Nice. And how many eggs per day do they all yield?
V: Right now I’m only getting maybe one. When it gets cold around, that’s when they stop producing.
J: Yeah. Well, you mentioned a little bit about your childhood here on the reservation. One of the questions I want to ask is, are there any other old memories that stuck with you, or old memories of your childhood that have changed? Like the landscape or time in the woods?
V: Yeah, it’s become less now.
J: Less woods?
V: Yeah, less woods, more development. I remember being a kid and you walk through the woods and it was just big. I mean, endless. And now you walk 20 feet and you’re in somebody’s yard. It’s not what it used to be.
J: I remember someone talking about the old days and Parrish Pond. Do you know that property North of the reservation? Apparently people were hunting in that – it was just forest and woodland and in such a short amount of time, it became developed.
V: I think the development itself grew when I was younger there, and I’m only gonna be 35 so it wasn’t that long ago, but there weren’t that many houses around so you had more woods to go through. You could actually – we used to quail hunt. Over by where you lived in that field there, it used to just no houses or anything, you could actually quail hunt but now you can’t even do that because of all the houses around.
Even for like on the outside, you can see it. But as you said, Parrish Pond. Now, all the deer are forced to come back over here when before they will over there.
You know, one of my passions is waterfowl hunting, and that’s been affected too because of all the development on the outside, you know. You have all those houses where they used to be cornfield and rye and wheat and all that stuff. It’s all gone. So now the waterfowl count is down. So that’s just over a short amount of time.
J: And I saw something on the Facebook page that you’re recruiting or sharing your knowledge of fowl hunting?
V: Yeah, for anybody that wants to. Has an interest in it. You know, as I said, anytime you go once you always become addicted to it. It’s just something that I’ve done forever. And the wait- I’m antsy now. Waiting only 23 days, and I’m ready to go now.
J: So there’s a season that’s gonna start happening? And you go down to The Point for it?
V: Go down to The Point, there’s across the street here, over behind the marina there are spots. There’s a few little nooks and crannies around that you can go to. It hasn’t been bad, but I would say the last 10 years I’ve noticed the difference the drop in the birds that are around.
J: And do you remember how young you are when you first went out hunting?
V: Ah, I had to be about 12 at least when I first went out when my dad took me out, and we went behind the cemetery and those little creeks there. We went back there. And I started getting into it and you know, go to high school and you forget about it. And one day I ran into a buddy and he said, “Let’s go. Let’s go out to hunt.” And you know, when I was living years ago now 11 years straight.
J: So how does it feel to just be able to go out with basically your backyard and provide food and sustenance?
V: Over the years begin to appreciate what it actually is all about. I don’t really even shoot anymore. You know, I just watch the guys do it, the only thing I really do is the duck calls. I have the dog. And it’s just the people you meet. The friendship that you get out of it and stuff like that. And we’ve been hunting with a group of guys for about eight years now. And it’s just it gets better and better every year.
J: If you were to, say, for example, you’re like advertising for waterfowl hunting. How would you describe the whole process?
V: I don’t know, it’s kinda tough because there’s no guarantee. There’s no guarantee that you’re gonna limit out your bag limit for the day on the birds you get. So I don’t know, I don’t know-how. It changes every time. Nowadays people just want to kill everything, you know, as they say, “make a pile.” But for me, it’s the whole hunt. That’s what it is for me.
I tell the guys I come, I say, you know, there’s gonna be days we’ll be sitting out there freezing cold in the rain and you might not even shoot, but they understood and it just grew into a bond where they don’t even care if we don’t even shoot the whole day. It’s a bond that we have really.
Me personally, I just feel like it’s dying around here on the reservation, there’s not too many of us that still, you know, hunt. Anything I can do for the sport, you know, I want to be involved in it.
So when I did that, you know, that was promoting to get more women involved. There’s a youth day on the ninth and 10th to get more kids involved, even if it’s just, you know, gun safety or the idea of hunting. At least I’m bringing it to the people.
J: So that’s November 9th?
J: Okay. And what is your role? Teaching the hunting basics?
V: Yeah, just the basics. You know, I’m not a professional as you call it. I do it for the fun, the sport, the comradery.
J: Well, before we get too far away, I just wanted to If you could describe the location where we took the photos outside, and if it has any meaning for you?
V: That was the chicken coop – my area where I built a little chicken sanctuary, I guess you could call it.
Not really. It’s just – I just – one day decided to go out there and do it. Give them more space. You know, there was nothing special behind it, just something that I went out and did.
J: Okay. And in terms of the road portrait, was there a special meaning behind this place on the reservation, or are there other places that you thought in terms of where we could have shot?
V: No. How do I say it? To me, it’s all just one whole. One whole thing doesn’t matter where I can be on/off. That’s just something that I’ve always been taught – that it’s just home, you know?
J: Yeah. If this was a newspaper article that would be the headline.
V: Ha, Yeah – Home.
J: Well, you spoke a little bit about your parent’s role. I wonder if they shared any stories or any histories that were passed down or stuck with you, even fro, many years ago?
V: Um, a lot of stories that I heard, or of my grandfather, Charles Smith, who I know and I never met, you know, like I said, unfortunately, he died when I was young, but a lot of the things that I’m doing are what he used to do. With his chickens and just find scraps to just build and my mom tells me all the time that I’m like my grandfather. He had dogs all over the place. And one time I had I had seven dogs.
J: At one time?
V: At one time. And I never think about any of it. It just comes to me naturally. It’s like a feeling that I get. I’ve heard stories from my father. You know, my great grandmother, great grandfather. They were hunters. Actually, my great grandfather was a guide, a waterfowl guide back in the 20s 30s. So it just comes naturally.
J: And you mentioned you had seven dogs at one time here. I love reading the 17th century and before that time and how Shinnecock had so many dogs that the colonists find them and force them to put them down. Did you ever think of how we treat dogs today in terms of having them as pets or having them roam or the breeds or anything?
V: No, I like all dogs. They all have their purpose. They’re more like, now I understand what it means to have a working dog. So I’m getting into more of that. Meaning going hunting and herding breed of dogs.
As far as the roaming, it bothers me a little bit just because you never know the dog. And it could, you know, you can get bit or a child or something happens like that.
My whole thing is, you know, its a responsibility, and it took me a while to learn that but you know. If you’re not ready to be responsible for that pet, then you know, don’t, don’t do it because it’s bad for the dog. You know, I’ve seen a lot of roaming dogs roam. And we don’t have space for it.
But I do believe in values and tradition. And I do that I believe in that. I learned that through my dad. You know, he’s a very traditional man – old school, I guess you could say,
J: Yeah. From what I know from your dad is that he’s kind of like a database of our history.
J: Did you ever get hints of how he was able to learn all that or learn about books or records or anything like that?
V: He has a lot of books that he’s had around for a while, he does a lot of research on his own. I mean a lot of years worth of research that he does. And every now and then we’ll sit and he tells me a lot of how the old ways were. I never really asked for a history lesson. It was more just us talking and what he saw growing up and how he saw the old-timers and what they did, and it always amazed me.
And I’ve always been stuck in that mind frame. And if I could, I would, I would live that way.
J: With all those history books and things around, did you, as a child or as a teenager, find one and be like, wow, that’s crazy. That’s what the history was? Did you find an individual or anything in the history books that surprised you?
V: For me, I was fortunate to be able to sit around Norman Smith and Dave Smith, David Martinez, and my dad when they were sitting around, and I would, you know, sit in the room with them and listen, and I was able to get the knowledge that way. And never really books. I’ve always listened, everything was always word of mouth. To me, and that’s more personal than reading the book when you sit with them who have actually been there and heard it, that that always amazed me. So that’s how I got my knowledge of the reservation.
J: I wonder if there’s potential for that to be like a storytelling circle, or if that’s still going on in households on the reservation, but we don’t know.
V: I believe so. I believe if we went around to enough of the elders I’m not sure they’re dying to just spill their knowledge growing up here and everything from my experience with a lot of the elders. Pop Marshall is one of my good friends. I worked with him for about three and a half years and I didn’t even really have to speak, everything was just his knowledge that he poured onto me. So I learned a lot. I learned a lot about here through him, you know, my dad, stuff like that. To me, I feel that’s more of a personal connection. When, you know, when you hear from those who actually been there.
J: Absolutely. You’re talking a lot about our elders and generations before us. Maybe I could ask if there’s a kind of leadership that you sort of want to see or communal changes you want to see from the leadership?
V: It’s kind of tough – I separated myself from the politics because it’s just a never-ending story. It just goes round and round and round and round, this one blames this one, this one blames that one. So it’s I kind of fell away from it but I would like to see it where the people matter. What we saying actually matters, not just you know, “okay we’ll see what we can do.” I’ve heard stories from the old days where it was more about the people and what the people needed and wanted.
So that would be my idea of leadership.
J: I have two questions that are kind of part of that. Just in terms of the wanted to see any changes on Shinnecock – it doesn’t have to be political, like for me, I’d like to see a library. The second part of the question is that, is there an issue that people aren’t talking about and you would want to raise in our community?
V: One of the issues I do have is the amount of people that we have up here that, I don’t even know who they are anymore. You know, it bothers me because you never know, something could happen. Anything could happen. Somebody could be kidnapped, God forbid. Anything like that. And we have no idea who the people are that we bring in. But to me, it’s just all about money, money, money, money, money, everybody wants money. And no one’s actually paying attention.
Me personally, I look at the small details. I look at all the little stuff. And some people miss that. You know, it’s just it’s all about money now. So, that’s one of the main things, concerns that I have is is the amount of people that we have up here.
J: Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s affecting everyone. We always have that tradition where you wave to people you drive pass, now you wonder who are you waving to?
V: Right, I don’t know this person.
J: I have the next question about your whole life, living on Shinnecock. Is there a proud moment that you can think of, just a tribal member growing up or as a human being?
V: Just being a Shinnecock period. Growing up and one of the richest towns and you know, the things you have to deal with, you know, growing up, you’re taught to be who you are, you know, no matter what, always be who you are. And I think for me, personally, that’s one of the proudest moments.
One of the things my dad said to me one time, I was going up to Buffalo to play in a golf tournament. Pretty young, in my early 20’s. And he goes, “when you go up there, just remember, never forget where you come from and who you are.” It didn’t dawn on me. And I get up there and then, you know, I guess, because of my personality. I mean, I’m, you know, I can make friends with anybody. I get along. I’m a people’s person. So I have no problem getting along with anyone, you know, just having a good time.
And I guess because of that there was tension built. And it just became something that it shouldn’t have been. And that’s when it dawned on me what he meant. That’s, that was the proudest moment that I can say that I have.
J: I didn’t write it down, but I wonder if there are any negative moments just to balance that in terms of stereotypes they’re wanting to you know defend that you actually are Shinnecock.
V: The best one you get is, “you don’t look Native.” What is Native supposed to look like? There’s never really an answer, but that to me is the most negative reaction that you can get from somebody.
J: And people say that to your face?
V: I’ve had a couple of times you know, but as I got older, I don’t even pay attention to it anymore. I kind of just go with the flow. I make stuff up. I entertain it sometimes.
J: Yeah. Make it light hearted.
V: Ha, yeah, right.
J: You had a story about going up to Buffalo but are there other ways that you represent being Shinnecock when you’re away from home?
V: Just how you carry yourself. I don’t even have a way to explain it. For me personally, everything is just a natural feel for me. And, you know, it just, it comes. I don’t even know how to explain it. The best way I can explain it’s just a natural feel. It’s a feeling of who I am, the people before me, you know, you know your own history. And I guess you can say you people’s history.
I carry that pride too. I keep it to myself. You know?
I know where I come from. So that alone is the pride.
I don’t have to explain to this person, you know?
J: And in talking about all these sorts of personal stories and memories, was there anything that you were thinking about while we were speaking but we moved on or you want to include or clarify or anything?
V: Now, one of the things I do think of was when we were taking the pictures out in the road, and right here by the coop was my grandmother. My mom’s mother, Bernice Smith. It reminds me of her yard. You know, the whole rundown chicken coop, which, mine isn’t rundown, but it just reminded me, you know, it reminds me of it. I had that thought when we were out there. It just brings you back to childhood memories.
V: And to see the change, sometimes you say to yourself man I can’t believe. I’ve actually watched the beach – Cuffee’s beach, it used to be hills, in a sense, and all that’s gone now from the erosion. And that happened within 20 years.
Maybe a little more now, but when I was young, you hear the old-timers saying, “you know, I remember it used to look like this,” and it never made sense. And now that I’m getting older, and I can actually say, Man, 20 years ago. Yeah, I get it. And sometimes change is good. Sometimes change is bad. But you know, that’s gonna happen whether we like it or not, it’s gonna happen.
I don’t knowI’ve been so far away from the whole political thing. We just need to move forward, really. Take accountability for whatever. And let’s just go forward because of its a bump in the road. And if we can’t get over that, how are we going to make it in the future?
I’ve seen a lot of change from just that. You know, I’ve seen people change. It’s an ugly thing. And I would like to see that change. Like it used to be.
You know, when you’re a kid, you see everybody doing stuff together. And it just, it’s not there anymore. There are no more socials. You know, when we were kids there were socials where at least you know, once a month or however many – that’s all gone. And there’s no unity anymore, in my personal opinion, there’s no unity and we need to bring all that back. I feel. We need to bring that back. I feel like tradition is slipping.
You know, I feel some children and misled. I hear things like with Powwow. You know, competition and all that and “my child not placing.” When I was a kid, it was never about “placing,” we were never taught to go out there and try and win money and we’re just going out there and dancing and because you want to and we need to bring all that back. All that has to be established again, because this not about winning. That’s what I want to see.
As far as politics – it’s the same.
J: Keep that distanced?
V: Ha, yeah.
J: November 9, you’ll be doing that very thing. Bringing some community back.
V: Yeah, I actually have Numi.
J: Oh, yeah.
V: He’s been here. He asked me like two months ago, “when are we go hunting?” and I took them, him and his brother, when they were little younger. We went out and he loved it. So he’s asking me now. I’ll try to get more involved as time goes on. And the more I learned, the better I’ll get at it. And you know, teaching people hunting, waterfowl hunting especially.