Tribal Trustee Lance Gumbs at the Shinnecock Indian Nation Powwow. (Photo by Treva Wurmfeld)
California School of the Arts

Director Treva Wurmfeld Q&A on the land rights of the Shinnecock tribe in ‘Conscience Point’

Director Treva Wurmfeld tells the story about the Shinnecock tribe and their battle for land rights in the Hamptons.

With rising living wages, $10 million houses, and luxurious gulf courses, the land is running rampant with development that requires the uprooting of the Shinnecock people’s land, as well as the bodies of their ancestors.

The tribe continues to fight with leader Rebecca Hill-Genia, American Indian Movement advocate, who hopes to gain their deserved land back. 

What led to the decision to telling the story of the Shinnecock people and this fight for land?

I screened my last film “Shepherd and Dark” in South Hampton at the Stony Brook [University] campus in 2013. I hadn’t been out there in a long time but I did grow up going out there a little bit. When I got back out there, I was struck by the beauty. I ended up meeting Shinnecock activist Rebecca Hill-Genia. It was meeting her that inspired me to want to tell her story. Ultimately, that led to looking at the various layers and complexities about the history of the land and the people. 

independent lens 2019 conscience point publicity 03 Director Treva Wurmfeld Q&A on the land rights of the Shinnecock tribe in Conscience Point
U.S. Open merchandise featuring the Shinnecock name being sold at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. The Shinnecock Indian Nation receives no revenue from merchandise sales. (Photo by Treva Wurmfeld)

What was the general process in filming this documentary?

I met [Hill] in June of 2014. It was a five-year process on-and-off being in touch with her. I also live in Los Angeles. Initially I was scraping by to fly myself and an assistant to shoot for a week, then come back to look at the footage. Then, in 2017, PBS Independent Lens came on and really helped make [the project] a real thing. We were funded by ITVS (Independent Television Service). At that point I had the means to embed myself there more so I moved my family for roughly three months. We went back and forth every couple of months from 2017 through past summer. 

What is one thing you hope audiences take away from this documentary?

I tend to divide the audience into natives and non-natives. My hope for native audiences is that they feel empowered and feel like it is very important to continue their fight for justice. For non-native viewers, my hope for the takeaway is really that they wake up to reality of the history of this country and what Native American communities have had to contend with, in terms of generations of oppression. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in this country so I’m hoping this film helps move things in that direction. 

independent lens 2019 conscience point rebecca hill genia Director Treva Wurmfeld Q&A on the land rights of the Shinnecock tribe in Conscience Point
Shinnecock activist Rebecca Hill-Genia has worked for decades to fight overdevelopment of the Hamptons and bring issues to the attention of town officials, including improper disposal of ancestral remains and disturbances of grave sites. (Photo by Nadia Hallgren)

Through this documentary, I’m sure there’s a lot to learn and gain from the Shinnecock and how they fight for what the deserve. What have you learned in the process of filming?

One of the things I took away personally would be the way that we have gone out of our way to preserve and protect our colonial history. That takes shape in the way we protect architecture or farmland or colonial cemeteries. It is very difficult for me now to see those kinds of preserved colonial sites the same way. It makes my skin crawl a little bit now because I realize that just as it might be very difficult for people in the South to constantly be around Confederate statues, it is [also] very difficult for Native Americans in the North East areas to constantly be reminded of colonial history that the country is so keen on celebrating. 

independent lens 2019 conscience point shane weeks Director Treva Wurmfeld Q&A on the land rights of the Shinnecock tribe in Conscience Point
Shane Weeks, a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, fishes on the reservation in Southampton across from luxury homes. (Photo by Nadia Hallgren)

What can people and high schoolers like myself do to help support the cause of fighting for land rights?

Listening to Native American activists, promoting their messages, standing up in protest with Native Americans — All of that is incredibly important. change happens when people young or old get behind a cause in mass. The more supporters the better. High schoolers can listen and share the messages of Native Americans. Bringing in Native American voices into the conversation is very important so that the ideas moving forward are inclusive of Native Americans. 

Stream the documentary now on PBS Video App and on pbs.org/consciencepoint.

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