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Ma's House - TravelStorys

Long Island Diversity Back Story

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Ma's House

Welcome to the Long Island Diversity Back Story tour, where you can hear stories about local traditions. Communities from all over the world make their homes here on Long Island, including indigenous people, for whom the land is their ancestral land. Today, the Shinnecock Indian Nation is based on their Reservation in Southampton, but they continue to fight for sovereignty over sacred sites, burials, and resources. Listen now to hear the stories of two Shinnecock artists and activists: painter and beadworker Denise Silva-Dennis and her son, photographer Jeremy Dennis, founder of the Ma's House Art Studio for Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Denise grew up admiring the beadwork on regalia worn by dancers at powwows. When she was a young child, she asked her mother if she could learn: Denise Silva-Dennis: My mom would keep all of our regalia in one place, in a big trunk, and so one summer, I said "Mom, how do you- I want to learn how to do some beadwork!" I wanted to have a new outfit or part of an outfit for the upcoming powwow for Shinnecock. So, she had gotten the trunk out, and we didn't have any leather, to start a new one, or anything like that, so we kind of refashioned one of my brother’s—he had like a loincloth. So we kind of refashioned that into a little skirt for me. And she had a jar of beads, and she showed me how to put the beads on a string, how to do a little flower design. So yeah, that was my first teacher. Sitting down with my mother. Denise is also a painter and was a teacher for many years. All along, she has continued her beadwork, making regalia for her community, like a large beaded crown she made for her daughter Kelly to celebrate her college graduation. Denise used glass and clay beads to recreate the design of the Shinnecock Nation seal on the headpiece. Denise Silva-Dennis: With this one, I did use the design from our nation's flag. So it's always important to have the turtle, because the turtle is an important part of our creation story. We share that with Northeastern tribes, how a woman came down from the clouds, and she came back on the back of a turtle, there was all water surrounding her. So yeah, that's central. And then we have the sun in there, because up here, there's a sacred place where the sun sets, and you can see it from the reservation, and that's actually where our ancient people are buried, and that's what we’re currently fighting to keep from being dug up for more mansions. And that's called Sugar Loaf. To me, it's like a spiritual thing. So much of your time is put into it, and then you know, you're sewing, and you're bleeding. There’s all these different elements, and then you're thinking of how you're going to design it, there's so much thought that goes into it. It’s like a painting, like another one of your children that you created. Besides her creations, Denise has two children, her daughter Kelly—one of the first women elected to the Shinnecock Tribal Trustees—and her son Jeremy, who is also an artist. Through his work as a photographer, Jeremy depicts sites on Long Island that are important to the Shinnecock, such as the sacred Sugar Loaf Hill burial site. Jeremy Dennis: The very first one I went out and photographed, called Sugar Loaf Hill, that has a history even before 1989, but that was the time when it was desecrated and destroyed. So I try to describe what it is and why it's significant to Shinnecock: it’s one of our three thousand-year-old group burial sites of our ancestors. For Shinnecock and the people of Long Island who were the original inhabitants, we often had unmarked graves, we would dedicate hilltops to burial sites. And so that was one of the sites that I wanted to focus on and use as an example using photography to try to preserve and prevent future desecration. In addition to important historic sites on Long Island, Jeremy also photographs contemporary sites, like the reservation community center and the Shinnecock Monument, a digital billboard that provides an economic opportunity for the tribe. This helps call attention to the lives of modern Shinnecock as they fight to reclaim sovereignty over their ancestral land. Jeremy Dennis: Probably 90% of what is taught in public school curriculum is pre-1900 about Native American people. Just that fact alone portrays the idea that we're a static people, we're stuck in the past, or we vanished as a race, or we’re no longer "Indian enough." That's just a common misunderstanding that has been used, just in terms of racism and discrimination, but also in terms of politics and us trying to be a sovereign nation. Whenever we want to do something economic or politically, we always come back to this argument that people think we’re not Native enough, or we’re not Shinnecock enough, or indigenous enough. And so I really want to show that we have this long connection, especially to the landscape. Connection to the land is something that you just can't really take away. Even if they try to take everything else away, like our cultural practices, and try to convert us to a certain religion, then you can always look back at the land and say this is where our ancestors once were, and we have this sense of belonging that's really strong. Telling the stories of his people through artwork also motivated Jeremy to turn "Ma's House"—his late grandmother's home on the Shinnecock reservation—into a studio and gallery space for Black, Indigenous, and other artists of color. He has renovated the house with support from donations from his community and others he met while traveling as a photographer. Jeremy Dennis: Ma's House was built in the 1960s. It was mostly built using scrap materials from an old church, the Grace Episcopal Church in Riverhead. That church, I believe, was in service from the 1860s to the 1940s, and for whatever reason, they had to dismantle it, and my grandfather Peter Silva, Sr. went to that site. Because of the generosity of over 400 individuals, I wanted to just dedicate this whole front of the house more to community events and an informal art exhibit space. I thought that that kind of reciprocity between people giving and me giving back, because I now have a space, is just a great harmony of what is possible with more art-based spaces. When people come here, and when people hear it's on Shinnecock, I think there's a different expectation, or understanding. So the plan is to have it dedicated to the arts, and to have Ma's House primarily serve communities of color and artists of color, and that'll start with supporting Shinnecock youth. It'll also encourage Shinnecock adults who just want to have a creative outlet, or who just want to come and support and observe different art happenings here in the house. My personal belief is that art can help heal, it can help grant a sense of belonging. In my personal art, I really love bringing people together. And so, even though it's going to primarily support and serve artists of color, I think anyone can just show up and also support those people. Ready for more stories? Continue on our Long Island Diversity Back Story journey. This program was curated by Georgia Ellie Dassler. This program is funded by the NY State Council on the Arts and the Robert Gardiner Foundation.

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