Conscience Point Film Review

Conscience Point Film Review
Can Native Americans reasonably expect their stolen lands to be returned? While the US Supreme Court sided with the Lakota Nation regarding the appropriation of the Black Hills, the Court ruled the Lakotas were only entitled to a cash settlement (which they refused).

Attitudes regarding land, and its intrinsic cultural and spiritual value to its Indigenous inhabitants, are explored in Treva Wurmfeld's documentary "Conscience Point". Her subject is the Shinnecock Nation, located in what is now the Hamptons. Like the Lakota, the Shinnecock experienced a massive reduction in land base due to theft. The Supreme Court has, so far, refused to hear their case but the Shinnecock continue to press for the restoration of their homeland.

"Conscience Point" is told mainly through the eyes of Rebecca Genia, a diminutive tribal activist with an iron will. Polite but emphatic, Genia is shown protesting the frenetic pace of land development and the desecration of Shinnecock gravesites. Writer-director Wurmfeld, in an even-handed approach, also profiles non-Indigenous fishermen and farmers whose livelihoods have been affected by skyrocketing property taxes and environmental degradation.

Corey Dolgon, author of "The End of the Hamptons", is interviewed and provides historical context for the transformation of the Hamptons. Dolgon echoes Genia's point that history did not begin in 1640 when the colonists landed.

"Conscience Point" was filmed in 2018, during which the US Open Golf Tournament took place at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course. Built on land sacred to the Shinnecocks and containing the graves of their ancestors, the owners do not allow the Shinnecocks access to the site. Even standing near the course, as Genia does while explaining to Wurmfeld why she decries its existence, draws the attention of a security guard.

The film does depict ways in which cooperation results in protection for Shinnecock sacred sites. When a construction company uncovers a Shinnecock burial site, Genia and her fellow activists work with a preservation fund to buy the land. The Shinnecock have also proposed legislation to preserve native and colonial graves, although it has not yet been adopted.

While the return of Native land is a non-starter for many (illustrated in the film), the health of the environment may depend on it. In one scene, a man laments the decimation of the fish population, a result of pesticides sprayed for the benefit of homeowners living near the water. He looks wistfully across the bay, at the undefiled shoreline of the Shinnecock Reservation, and says, "Look. It's beautiful over there."

"Conscience Point" was released in 2019. It screened this month on PBS in honor of Native American Heritage Month. It was also selected for this month's Native Cinema Showcase, sponsored by the National Museum of the American Indian. Review posted on 11/28/2020.

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