Indian tribe on eastern Long Island Israeli transplants create documentary

Hauppauge, Syoset, Setauket.

It was the road signs that first suggested to longtime Long Island resident Ziggy Attias that perhaps he didn't know enough about his surroundings.

"Long Island is basically suburbia," says the Israeli-born Attias. "To find Indians there" was surprising.

Together with another Israeli, Ofer Cohen, Attias took a peek into the powwow — the annual ceremonial gathering of the Shinnecock tribe in the resort community of Southampton. The result is the documentary "Traveling the Distance," to be screened Nov. 18 at the 22nd annual American Indian Film Festival and Video Exposition in Emeryville.

The documentary was produced to "travel the distance" between the Shinnecocks, who have been living in Long Island for centuries, and the newcomers: the affluent summer residents of the Hamptons on eastern Long Island, suburbanites to the west and the Israeli-born producers.

Few Long Islanders, says Attias, have a clue about the Indian tribe "in their backyard." Many Indians are living in poverty in one of the wealthiest resort communities on the East Coast.

While the Shinnecocks last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of their annual Southampton gatherings, which are open to the public, the powwow itself is more than 300 years old. The earliest historical record is in the 1659 journal of one Samuel Taylor.

After the Civil War, the tribe aided many former black slaves from the South, adopting many as tribe members. For this reason, many Shinnecocks have African-American features.

Producing the film was not an easy task for Attias, 31, a filmmaker who is better known for his jewelry designs, and Cohen, 35, a television cameraman and filmmaker. It took them a year to win the powwow organizers' trust. But even so, when they arrived on the scene, no one would talk to them. That first fruitless day culminated in being asked to move their tent because they had inadvertently camped on somebody else's spot. The next day the person whose spot they had taken came to apologize. It was Dr. Dale Brooks, a tribe member. Her willingness to talk to them finally broke the ice with others.

The movie brings pictures from the colorful gathering — from dances to marches, from drums to rest time. But it also gives the participants a chance to voice their own thoughts about the powwow. As a result, there is little narration from the producers.

"We only used narration when something special came up, and we had to comment on that," Cohen says.

Most of all, Attias and Cohen say the movie shows respect for the Shinnecock tribe. Being Jewish and Israeli, says Attias, probably helped the moviemakers to understand the struggles of a small nation to maintain cultural coherence.

Creating that trust involved a number of steps, such as showing the completed film to several tribe members and correcting pronunciation of names. The movie is dedicated to the memory of Melvin Coombs, a Mashpee Wampanoag Indian from Massachusetts who talked to them at the powwow and was later murdered.

"We felt it was a gesture of respect," says Cohen.

"Traveling the Distance" won the Best Feature Documentary Award at the Long Island Film Festival and is slated to be broadcast on PBS. It will be shown to the Shinnecock tribe during its Nov. 20 Thanksgiving celebration.