Native Americans of the Shinnecock tribe have been living in eastern Long Island since long before European settlers arrived in the 17th century. And while you might not expect a reservation to be located near now-trendy Southampton village, that’s exactly where David Taobi Silva lives and fishes, and he claims he has aboriginal rights to do so, even if it is against Department of Environmental Conservation regulations.
At issue are tiny glass eels that are illegal to harvest in New York, a regulation state officials call vital in protecting a depleted population. But Mr. Silva told the officers that he was free to gather the eels, citing an aboriginal right to fish locally that is based on Shinnecock tradition and ancient treaties that predate and supersede government laws.
“We’ve been fishing here forever, so it’s hard for me to understand that it has suddenly become illegal for Shinnecock people,” said Mr. Silva, who was nevertheless charged with illegally harvesting the eels.
Mr. Silva’s defense includes ancient treaties between his ancestors and early settlers that predate New York State’s formation and laws. The treaties stipulate that tribal members retain a sovereign right to harvest fish freely even in nonreservation areas.
One is a 1648 deed for the sale of East Hampton from the Shinnecock and three other tribes — payment included 20 coats, 24 looking glasses, 24 hoes, 24 hatchets, 24 knives and 100 mugs — to early British settlers. The deed stipulates that the tribes retain the right “freely to fish in any or all the cricks and ponds” and “reserve libertie to fish in all convenient places.”