Old Money and Old Grievances Clash in Haven of the Very Rich

"We seek justice," said Randy King, center, chairman of the Shinnecock Indian tribe's board of trustees, who with fellow trustees filed a land-claims lawsuit earlier this month. (By Ed Betz -- Associated Press)
By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 25, 2005

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- The Shinnecock Indians have a grand idea.

They want this wealthiest of Long Island beach towns to give back to the tribe about 3,600 acres, encompassing the posh Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and a few multimillion-dollar waterfront chateaus. Southampton's forefathers long ago obtained this land -- valued at a tidy $1.7 billion today -- from the Shinnecocks under questionable circumstances.

Or, alternatively, Southampton's town leaders could keep their land and allow the Shinnecocks to construct a $20 million casino on sandy bluffs overlooking Peconic Bay.

"We've complained until we are blue in the face -- now we seek justice," said Randy King, the taciturn chairman of the tribe's board of trustees, which earlier this month filed a land-claims lawsuit against Southampton in U.S. District Court. "Think of it as a civics lesson. Think of it as 'Put up or shut up.' "

Several wealthy investors, including Detroit businessman Michael Ilitch -- who owns the Detroit Tigers baseball team -- are financing the tribe's legal battles, in hopes of persuading the town to yield on a casino.

None of this amuses the non-Indian natives. Many Southampton officials view the land claims as preposterous and the proposed casino as a disaster, threatening to bring gambling fever and more cars to the gridlocked reaches of eastern Long Island. They have rallied political support -- both of the state's U.S. senators, Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, oppose a casino -- and have hired a lawyer to fight the land claims in court.

Southampton Supervisor Patrick A. Heaney has stopped talking to the media about the matter. But early on he told a Newsday reporter: "I don't think it's my obligation, personally, to carry some great angst about the relationship between townspeople historically and people living on the reservation."

As for the moneyed Manhattanites who are thick on Southampton's oak-shaded streets this time of year? The summer season has shifted into high gear, as private helicopters ferry the plutocratic set -- such as financier Henry Kravis and former ambassador to France Felix G. Rohatyn -- to weekend mansions and $1,000-a-plate dinner parties (the Animal Rescue Fund's Ciao Ciao Bow Wow soiree is all the buzz just now).

But few of these worthies are sweating the question of land claims.

"This dispute isn't on their tongues -- in fact, I haven't heard a word," said Joan Jedell, publisher of the Hampton Sheet, which chronicles every champagned step of the rich and deeply tanned. "The high-net-worth crowd doesn't really worry about this sort of thing. That's for the locals."

Over at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which has harbored generations of Rockefellers, du Ponts and Vanderbilts, mum's the word.

"We have no comment at all," General Manager Greg Dreger said. "Really, just no comment."

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