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We move together: Shinnecock women & Sisters of St Joseph

Shinnock women kelp farmers
Shinnock Women kelp farmers

For thousands of years, the Shinnecock People relied on the waters for their flourishing, harvesting shellfish in the US's Shinnecock Bay on the east end of Long Island, also known as Seawanhaka – the traditional home of the Shinnecock people and 12 other indigenous nations.

Today, the area is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme storms. In response, a multigenerational collective of six indigenous women from the Shinnecock Women have created the Shinnecock Kelp Farmers, which reclaims the practice of kelp cultivation and restores balance to the local ecology.

In 1650, another collective of six women and a Jesuit founded the Sisters of St. Joseph in the village of LePuy, France. These women divided the city, assessed the needs and responded, doing any good work of which they were capable.

Propelled by spirituality

In 1836, another six women were sent from Lyon, France to St Louis, Missouri, and as they expanded across the United States, some eventually landed in New York. Today, the Sisters of St Joseph of Brentwood predominantly live on the ancestral lands of the Paumanok people, namely the Secatogue (Brentwood, NY) and Shinnecock (Hampton Bays, NY), where they are propelled by their spirituality of active, inclusive love to continue to respond to needs of our time.

Nearly 400 years later, these women have entered into a unique friendship and collaboration to live Laudato Si’s call to listen and respond to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Today, this collaboration involves sharing land to pursue kelp cultivation and farming.

Sr Joan Gallagher CSJ recounted the congregation’s study of Laudato Si’ and their desire to act. Collectively, sparked by their relationship with the land and acknowledgement of its indigeous history as well as by Pope Francis’s idea of 'integral ecology', the sisters recognised the invitation to be in dialogue with indigenous wisdom.

It arrived in an email. In January of 2021, Ms Becky, a member of the Shinnecock Women and neighbour to the Sisters, reached out to Sr Joan Gallagher, CSJ to pitch an idea, as she explains below (click on the video to be taken to the clip):

Ms. Becky is one of six indigenous Shinnecock Women who began the Shinnecock Kelp Farmers. The project is grounded in the traditional importance of seaweed for Shinnecock life, which has been used for generations as food, building material, and fertilizer.

Seaweed also plays an important role in purifying ocean waters: it absorbs carbon and is vital for shellfish, an important source of food for the Shinnecock tribe. But the early colonists, recognising its usefulness, decimated the New York coast’s supply of seaweed. The Shinnecock Kelp Farmers, in partnership with Greenwave and the Sisters of St Joseph, are on a mission to bring the practice back. Darlene Troge explains:

The success of the project does not lie in its method, assets, or technology – rather, it is deeply rooted in indigenous wisdom, in particular attitudes and ways of being that have been passed down through generations: a long-term perspective, a unity in community, attitudes of stewardship and sharing, gratitude and gift.

Everything is connected

Sr Joan describes how the attitude and approach of the Shinnecock Women have shifted the Sisters’ idea of what it means to respond to the climate crisis – mindsets of responsibility, moderation, and kinship are critical. 'These are the peoples who were here first, and who listen to the land and all our relations,' she says. 'They have awakened in us how to better live out our charism of unity and all inclusive love.' As Pope Francis writes, 'everything is connected' (LS 91).

A central aspect of the partnership between the Shinnecock Women and Sisters of St Joseph is its focus on listening and encounter, especially when it comes to acknowledging and repairing dark histories and injustice. Darlene explains the importance of land acknowledgements and the importance of shifting from a mindset of ownership and dominion to one of shared stewardship.

But the situation facing the Shinnecock people and other residents of Long Island is dire. A report from Stony Brook University found that 99% of the scallop population has been lost; some scientists have predicted that the peninsula home to the Shinnecock people could lose two thirds of its landmass by 2050.

The earth is in dire straits

'We feel the earth is in dire straights, too,' Ms Becky says. 'She is crying for help, and she is crying for our help. And we had better listen and act, even if it’s a little bit.' Darlene describes this urgency.

Economic inequality and stark injustice also surround them. Tela Troge describes how the Shinnecock tribe’s closest neighbours are located across Shinnecock Bay on Billionaire’s Row. The resilience and initiative of the Shinnecock people has become a catalyst for action and transformation.

And yet, the Shinnecock Women speak with profound optimism and belief, even in the face of extreme inequality, poverty, and the immediate threat of climate change. As Ms Becky says, 'Every single voice matters; do what you can do' Tela speaks to the power, resilience, and example of the Shinnecock voice:

The Sisters’ partnership with the Shinnecock Women has brought the congregation 'full circle' with regard to their own vocation – it is not lost on the congregation that they began with six women and that six indigenous women have led them to embark on this new chapter and the renewed expression of their mission. Sr Joan stresses the need for partnership, transformation, and solidarity in this work.

The Sisters are also bringing the lessons and inspiration of the Shinnecock tribe into their own operations – the congregation has since partnered with the county and state on a variety of initiatives.

An inspiration to others

The Shinnecock Kelp Farmers are hopeful that their work will inspire other tribes to seek solutions to the climate crisis. 'I am hopeful that Shinnecock Kelp Farmers is offering a glimmer of hope for others,' Ms Danielle Hopson-Begun says.

'With climate change being so overwhelming, people can feel like, what can I do about it? This is what we have chosen to do about it in conjunction with our partners. And we hope that it will be an inspiration to others, for them to do what they can.'

S. Joan confirms that actions are important, but that in the end, it really is 'all about relationships'. 'These Shinnecock Women,' she says, 'are really helping us become who we are called to be.'


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