Members of the gathered with community leaders and politicians Saturday morning to break ground on the Shinnecock Substance Abuse Mobilization Project, a recovery home and "wellbriety" center.
Two Shinnecock spiritual leaders led more than a dozen family, friends and activists in a ceremony to bless the land next to the reservation's Family Preservation Center.
Among the crowd were several members of the board of directors of . Key organizers included board Co-Vice Chair Kenneth Wright, a Bridgehampton contractor who provided and set up construction materials for the groundbreaking, and board member the Rev. Michael Smith, the pastor of .
Smith reflected on a community with such an exposure to alcoholism and drug abuse that a long life was once uncommon.
"A lot of the men that were [buried] were my babysitters, and I thought they were old men," Smith said. "They died in their early 30s and 40s … all of that was a consequence of alcohol."
Smith said he will be sober 27 years this August.
U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop, D-Southampton, took part in the event, as did Judge Edward Burke and Benjamin Tucker, the deputy director of state, local and tribal affairs for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
"I don't think you can name a family anywhere in the United States that doesn't have that struggle." Bishop said. "This is precisely what this community needs." He noted his family had its own battles with addiction and that a close family member has been sober for 13 years
This is the third time Smith has attempted to break ground for SAMP. In previous years dried funds had stalled the project, which relies mostly on private and local corporate donations, Smith said. Recently, SAMP secured a letter of intent for a large federal grant from Tucker's office. Local donors are expected to follow.
Former addicts stood alongside community leaders to smoke from the peace pipe, part of a Shinnecock spiritual tradition nearly 2,000 years old. SAMP offers treatment and recovery programs, but perhaps as important, offers hope for a community at a crossroads, elders said.
"Eventually they'll all be here like we said we would," Avery Dennis said. Dennis, a former tribal trustee, started a recovery group in the area 30 years ago. "It's a disease that destroys you. I think the reservation all has to get back to our foundations."
Tribe member Philip Brown IV noted cross-culture unity is necessary to divert the path of history. During the Colonial era, European settlers knew to introduce alcohol as a weapon to take the natives' land, he said, an institution that projects like SAMP are now battling.
"It's good to see we have pale faces here helping us back," Brown said. "[They are] giving us new renovation, new hope. We have to start helping our kids."