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Shinnecock native explores his identity in Riverhead art exhibit

08/01/2017 6:00 AM |

A Southampton resident is exploring his own identity by exploring and documenting significant Native American sites around the North Fork and the rest of Suffolk County.

Jeremy Dennis, 27, has mounted an exhibit called “On This Site: Indigenous People of Suffolk County,” which will run until Sept. 30 at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, where he gave a presentation on his findings last Thursday.

Mr. Dennis was one of 10 recipients of a 2016 Dreamstarter Grant from a group called Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a national not-for-profit organization. He was awarded $10,000 to pursue his project, which uses photography to showcase culturally significant Native American sites on Long Island, a topic with significant meaning for Mr. Dennis, who was raised on the Shinnecock Nation Reservation.

“The project came out of asking myself questions about my own identity,” Mr. Dennis said. “I hope that this project can help others learn about themselves, too.”

Mr. Dennis started college at Stony Brook University as a computer science major, but soon changed gears and graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in studio art in 2013. Last May, he earned an MFA degree in photography from Pennsylvania State University. He worked with his mentor, Lonnie Graham, a professor at Penn State, throughout this project.

“Most of the information shown in the exhibit is new and exciting history that I never knew growing up,” Mr. Dennis said. “It’s really empowering to know more about myself, along with being able to recognize and share the overarching ancestral history.”

Several North Fork locations are featured in this exhibit, including the Orient Site, which is known as one of four burial grounds on eastern Long Island. Mr. Dennis discovered that during the period it was in use, 1300-1000 B.C., the site was separated from habitation areas, suggesting that Native Americans respected the land and kept it preserved.

Another featured site is Fort Corchaug in Cutchogue, where archaeological digs have shown evidence of contact between Native Americans and Europeans in the 1600s. It is now a national historic landmark.

Mr. Dennis’ presentation brought together around 25 people who took interest in native cultures.

“I have lot of interest in native cultures and peoples because it’s one of the most significant things as far as what’s going on in the world today,” said audience member Walter Harris of Selden . “I have a lot of native friends, so I like learning things from their perspective and connecting with someone locally is always good.”

The entire project comprises about 120 photos taken by Mr. Dennis. He hopes to continue westward with this project, moving westward to document all Long Island sites that are important to Native Americans.

Other significant locations have not been preserved. The Wading River Site, for example, was destroyed by the installation of a power plant in 1986 but had been a village during the Archaic Period (3500-1300 B.C.) and was used in winter months because it provided protection from cold north and western winds.

The Horse Barn Burial Site on Shelter Island has also gone unpreserved. In 2003, a group burial dating to between 1400 and 1640 was discovered on residential property there during construction of a barn. Although Shinnecock tribal members argued that the area should be preserved, the property owners continued development.

“I feel like this project is not complete until everything that can be represented is represented,” Mr. Dennis said.

He added that you can’t walk away from this exhibit thinking you know everything about native culture on Long Island, but it is a start to get people to be more aware of the topic.

“The native history that is connected to each picture is fantastic,” said Victoria Berger, executive director of the Suffolk County Historical Society.

A book of the photos taken by Mr. Dennis is available for purchase on his website jeremynative.com/onthissite, where the photos and an interactive map can also be viewed.

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Top photo: Jeremy Dennis. (Credit: Rachel Siford)

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