At an early age, First Nations Development Institute Board Vice Chair Marguerite Smith learned the importance of the natural world. As part of her “life’s training” before her formal training, she grew up knowing that this natural world extends to all life – people, animals, water, land and plants – and that everything in this world should be protected and respected.
This foundation has set a course for Marguerite’s life, and has driven her desire to always be an advocate for rights – whether they are human, Native, or women’s. It has guided her as a girl “on the Rez” and in New York City, and as a passionate attorney, educator, and consultant.
Raised to Speak Out
Marguerite grew up “in regular transit” between New York City and the Shinnecock territory on seaside Eastern Long Island. She had the experience of both being an “urban Indian,” attending New York City public schools, and knowing reservation life, surrounded by family and the natural world’s abundance of plants, animals, birds and sea life that form the heart of Shinnecock culture.
But as she grew up and the years passed, Marguerite saw first-hand how her people could speak out – and had to speak out – as Shinnecock lands were slowly absorbed by American land barons. Marguerite remembers her grandmother going to New York City to testify in land claim cases. And she remembers her mother being an unshakeable advocate for her children, despite only having a 9th grade education.
“I came from a family of very strong women,” she says. “There was never a sense of ‘I can’t do it because I’m a girl.’ Instead I said, ‘I have to do it because I’m a girl.’”
And there was a lot to do. At that time, the Shinnecock was not a federally recognized tribe, and as such received no federal funding. The tribal community was small, existing on a shoestring with occasional state grants and money raised through an annual powwow. With no federal treaty in place, the Shinnecock struggled to lay claim to their land, water, shores and air space. Asset control was an issue. The lack of rights was pervasive: Their land for farming, revenue from shell-fishing, access to the whales for ceremony and food, and even the energy-producing potential of their wind had all been compromised.
Meanwhile, much of the ancestral Shinnecock territory had morphed into the affluent Hampdens, and their sacred burial ground had become the setting for golf courses and luxury estates. The Shinnecock continued to find themselves in servant status, working in support of the leisure class.
Cultivating a Voice
Growing up, Marguerite knew money was tight, and the need to be able to make a good living to fuel her advocacy efforts was imperative. In college in the 1960s, she discovered how the law could be a very important tool for securing better lives for people who had been discriminated against or denied respect. She says, at the time, doors to law careers were just beginning to open for women and for people of color, and she decided she could do it.
“I thought of my mother,” she says. “She had a voice and she used it. I got the chance to put some credentials with that voice. It was her voice and her spirit that guided me.”
Marguerite says she got the chance to pursue higher education, and she took it. After college, she worked in human resources and economic research, and then went on to law school at New York University. As a lawyer, she worked in government, for corporations, and in private practice. Through the years, one of her areas of focus was labor law, based on the high unemployment rate of Indians. She pursued jobs that would allow her to advocate for better labor practices. She has also lent her legal skills to support tribal recognition, resource rights, and Indian health care and family wellness.
As her career continued, Marguerite came back to Shinnecock Indian Reservation, where challenges had evolved. On October 1, 2010, the tribe became federally recognized, but unfortunately it was not recognized in time for the tribe to immediately access significant federal funding for many departments.
And while in 2017, money is now coming in, so are the issues surrounding governance, federal requirements and reporting. The tribe must define its principles and develop policies. “There’s a lot of community education, and funding, and lawyering needed,” she says.
Just like the many tribal communities that have become federally recognized, the rights came, but the resources did not. It’s a win that the government now recognizes the Indian Child Welfare Act and allows tribal intervention in the placement of Native children out of child protective services. “That’s a good responsibility,” Marguerite says, “But it takes staff to send a lawyer to court. It takes staff to run a child welfare department.”
Having operated for decades by a few volunteers, the Shinnecock now must create a local infrastructure. Marguerite says they are still in the learning process, but it’s an area where she’s happy to contribute her skills and background. “It’s new territory, but the Shinnecock are a resourceful group of people,” she says.
Meeting Ongoing Challenges
Back at home, Marguerite is also focusing her efforts on the health of the tribe. She is coordinating a community health assessment, and evaluating the health status and needs of the people. In addition, she says, there are always ongoing battles concerning resources such as wind and sea, cultural ceremonies involving their honored whales, and access to food.
“It’s absurd,” she says. “We once had the land, but now we have diabetes. We have to be able to reclaim our land and look at approaches to food sovereignty and better health.”
She says it’s an issue common in Indian Country, and many tribes experience the same challenges in different ways. They are seeking solutions for food, their economy and health, all while trying to preserve and honor their Native ways. And this is the reason she’s been involved with First Nations.
She says she was introduced to First Nations by Gelvin Stevenson, who knew Rebecca Adamson, First Nations’ founder. Gelvin was an Oklahoma Cherokee economist who was active in the American Indian Community House, a key urban Indian Center and intertribal gathering place in New York City since the 1970s.
“First Nations is about culturally appropriate community development,” she says. She refers to an approach that ensures people don’t have to live in poverty, and can still be true to their Native roots. “Some might say it’s holistic economy building. They’re changing the economics, but not the value systems.”
She says First Nations is also able to highlight Native innovation and articulate its value to the broader financial community. First Nations is a good translator and broker. It is able to explain the Native circumstances. For example, how can the Shinnecock live in the Hampdens, but not be able to pull cash out of their homes? How can they live in houses, but not have equity? First Nations lets funding communities understand these barriers and the circumstances of Native people, while also conveying the strengths of Native people that would give investors assurance.
For the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, progress is steady but apparent. At the same time, Marguerite is excited about the ongoing role of First Nations in advancing the food sovereignty movement, and promoting financial literacy and strong business practices. She’s equally excited about how this knowledge will improve Shinnecock Nation.
A lifelong advocate, she stands by First Nations in knowing that Indians can continue to honor the natural world. They can do business in a responsible manner. They can create industries. And they can do it in a way that benefits present and future generations.
“They say Long Island is built out. Every tree is uprooted and paved over,” she says. “But this is our paradise. They aren’t making new land, so you have to respect the land you have.”
By Amy Jakober