Chenae Bullock, an enrolled Shinnecock Indian Nation Tribal Member and descendant of New York’s Montauk Tribe, is a pioneer. In fact, she’s said so herself, metaphorically stating that she has had to use a machete to cut down the obstacles in her way to create a path not only for herself but for the future generations of groundbreakers. A cultural preservationist for Indigenous traditions, she is also the author of the book 50 Plant Medicines: Indigenous Oral History and Perspective, which helps readers better understand how plant-based healing has guided humanity for thousands of years.
In 2019, Bullock created her own consulting firm, Moskehtu Consulting, to educate institutions and corporations on cultural competency, cultural sensitivity and the right way to partner with Indigenous peoples. She is currently managing director of Little Beach Harvest– a brand-new cannabis business entirely owned by the Shinnecock Nation partnering with established cannabis company TILT Holdings. Based in Southampton (Long Island), New York, the operations will take place entirely on Shinnecock sovereign land and will include cannabis cultivation, processing, dispensary and consumption lounge facilities. Through a joint venture with the Shinnecock Nation’s cannabis project development firm Conor Green, TILT is financing and managing Little Beach Harvest’s vertical integration of services. The dispensary and consumption lounge are set to open in early 2022.
Speaking with Honeysuckle, Chenae discusses the history of plant medicine, the development of Little Beach Harvest, and her more recent work (including a celebration on Randall’s Island groundbreaking Times Square billboard campaign) in anticipation of Indigenous People’s Day 2021.
HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: In 2019, you created your own consulting firm, Moskehtu Consulting, in response to the lack of “cultural competency” in the government and non-Native people. Can you elaborate on how you define “cultural competency” and the result of some of your firm’s work?
CHENAE BULLOCK: I have worked in the museum field for almost 15 years, and for those 15 years, I’ve worked alongside cultural heritage and preservation professionals who all have degrees. Now, some of these institutions were hiring firms on the expertise of Indigenous people, but they never wanted to bring on Indigenous people to be a part of it.
That happens across every industry, not just cultural heritage and preservationists. I was often told I had to have a certain degree, have gone to a particular school, had this fellowship, and so on. But they’re dealing with our ancestral ancient knowledge and acting as if they possess that knowledge when they don’t; I do.
So I decided, heck with it, I'm going to start my own firm. Working in corporate America throughout the years, I learned organizational structure, pitching, business practices, things like that. In 2019, I decided I had all my ducks in a row, I had all the relationships I needed established, I launched the firm, and–wow–it’s taken off. That was only three years ago.
Little Beach Harvest is a vertically-integrated medical cannabis operation wholly-owned by the Shinnecock Nation. This is new in the cannabis industry; what kinds of opportunities does this open up for you, and perhaps more importantly, what kinds of opportunities might this provide for Indigenous peoples in Long Island?
Our tribe passed a medical cannabis ordinance in 2016. Since then, our tribe has been reaching out to the state of New York to create a memorandum of understanding in order to gain access to patient data because our patients fall under the NYS Department of Health. That’s the only thing we really need to somewhat agree upon with the state, not the doing of the business.
This business, Little Beach Harvest, is going to generate the income to sustain our tribe itself – it's not like we’re getting those resources from somewhere else. If we have to step out and say we demand that Indigenous People’s Day be recognized in the state of New York, the city, and the town of Southampton, outside of the Department of Education; if we need to say that as a business, then we say it as a business, but it's coming from the tribal people in the business such as myself.
Our tribe is able to provide opportunities for tribal members to do business with us. There are opportunities if you have a cleaning service, a security service, landscaping; businesses need these kinds of services, education, wellness–we’ll have a wellness lounge–instructors, gardeners. My first priority is to ensure that the economy is circulated within our tribe. Right there, in Shinnecock alone you are able to see the impact Little Beach Harvest will have.
Now other tribes throughout the state, there's a conversation that our tribal leadership have had before cannabis was a topic. We’ve been here; we’ve traded with each other. The states–we never put borders between MA, RI, CT–we speak the same language; we’ve done business with each other prior to the word business ever being in our language. A highly regulated business tries to prevent tribes from continuing to do business with each other.
Little Beach Harvest is stepping out in the forefront, advocating for–well, really for POC–business between tribes. Also, with our partnership with TILT they’re able to provide their expertise, the relationships they may have in other states to be able to work with some of the tribes in those areas.
Being in this business is not about the profit, it's about the change. We’re talking about a sacred plant. Sometimes when we talk about the business of cannabis, we leave out the conversation of the sacredness of the plant, as well as the fact that the people who have cultivated the plant, those who understand the uses and have words in their language to describe those uses are us: Indigenous peoples. And that’s something that we don’t want to lose sight of.
What has it been like partnering with TILT Holdings to produce cannabis through Little Beach Harvest? How might we see this partnership grow?
With TILT Holdings comes intellectual know-how, intellectual property, funding, capital. We, as a tribe, provide the insight. For example, when we’re seeking builders, we on the Shinnecock side are working with TILT to make sure the areas beyond the building are checked off: [the builder] needs to understand they’re on native land, that this is a separate jurisdiction, that we have our own work permits, etc.
The partnership is growing, and with that comes education–or, us having to educate, which comes with the territory. Doing business with any tribe is going to be different than doing business with another business. That’s something that takes time to develop; it’s not just something we can explain.
[TILT has] come to visit, they’ve been able to spend time with different tribal members, and really get an understanding somewhat of the culture of the tribe. As time passes, there are certain things we do annually where there is not a separation of the tribe and business. The tribe owns the business, so when we’re having a ceremony, the owners–like myself–of the business, are going to be present in that ceremony. Depending on the ceremony, we invite our partners because that's where you gain the experience to really understand the people.
Cannabis is still seen as a taboo in many regards, despite its recent legalization in New York State. Is there a role you hope the Shinnecock Nation will play in normalizing the plant's usage?
It's hard for any Native to normalize anything because we are not normal: our own existence isn’t normal. What’s happening is there is a need, on this planet, for significant healing. This plant provides a gateway to this healing; we provide the ancient teachings and wisdoms to properly utilize the sacred plant for that healing.
A lot of us aren’t from the generation that experienced the height of the War on Drugs, so we don't really know what they went through at the time. We have elders, people in our community, that don’t believe that this plant is a sacred plant. They don't believe it is something that should be legalized. Now, that might be the manifestation of forced assimilation, since they lived during a time where they saw what happened to their uncles, brothers, fathers, or it could be because their family members are currently locked up in Suffolk County.
What we do know, though, is that it’s important for us to listen to our elders: that’s hearing them, thinking about how we might use their opposition as part of the healing process. We must create a safe space to have conversations about the duality of the plant, and about stepping out and being public about it, without making those who think cannabis is a bad thing that they are wrong. Hearing our elders is a fundamental part of the way we govern ourselves as a tribe.
How might Moskehtu Consulting work in tandem with Little Beach Harvest as the cannabis company grows?
I think for a lot of people it's hard to wrap their minds around the divide between the person, the business and the culture. But in Indian country it's all encompassed; it’s all one thing. I am Shinnecock; I am a woman of the Stoney Shores–there’s no separation between me, the tribes or my tribe's business.
Where the consulting comes in is when I’m able to teach other organizations or other businesses how to properly have cultural sensitivity around this day. How do you do business with a tribe? How do you do business during a time where we’re glorifying a rapist–glorifying someone who has slaughtered? And while [Natives] are having to watch this happen in front of us? How do you do business on a day with a tribe or a people who are still dealing with that insidious and historical trauma?
I was able to partner with [the] Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and this was one of the things I did in lieu of creating an audio tour exhibit on Indigenous plant medicines: cultural training for their staff. When you’re able to educate as opposed to just partnering on a product or a project, you’re able to implement the cultural sensitivity that’s needed in your corporation structure.
Having that consulting background and being the managing director of Little Beach Harvest, I'm making sure that the sensitivity is being carried out in our partnerships: whether that’s in PR, operational, HR, community outreach, to who might excavate the ground where we’re going to build this cultivation facility (there are certain cultural practices that we have in how we do that). So having that knowledge one, as a Native American woman, and two, as a professional in cultural heritage preservation, I feel like I'm able to really make sure that that sensitivity is carried out through Little Beach Harvest for my tribe.
You’ve mentioned before the legacy of plant medicine in Indigenous tradition— can you tell us a little bit about the ways in which this tradition has been cultivated?
This term plant medicine, people automatically think of psychedelics; people don’t think of dandelions, burdock root, sassafras. There is a world of botanics, a world of plant medicines that we use on a daily basis: people use it in hair, face, cleaning products, we might even eat it. [Natives] look at it as our lifeways.
Plant medicine isn’t something you go to because you need it, it’s an everyday practice. There are all sorts of ways we can look at Indigenous plants– and I say Indigenous plants because they were here, not brought here. Cannabis, among other plants, doesn’t have a voice. The voices that speak up for the plants are the stewards, the master growers, the legacy growers, the cultivators. These are the people who will let you know the energy of those plants. Little Beach Harvest wants to educate about some of these other plants as well.
There’s the word holistic, and there’s decolonization, which is the safer way to do it: are we doing business in a decolonized space, and are we doing it in a holistic way? How you pass legalization and laws, and how you implement regulations, we must do that all holistically. We are lucky to have the ability to do that as a tribe; in a state you have all different cultures, beliefs. There's no commonality except that you’re all in New York, whereas in a tribe we have commonalities, and we are able to use that commonality to respect each other.
What has it been like working with Honeysuckle and the Conor Green firm on the first Indigenous People's Day Times Square billboard?
First of all, I just want to say thank you! You don’t get that from any larger corporations; we don’t get that kind of support as Indigenous people. And this was even better because it came from a place of caring. Not because it's a marketing opportunity or profitable opportunity–something we get a lot, which is why we typically do things on our own, grassroots way.
IPDNYC will be holding an event on Randall’s Island for 24 hours. We’ve been doing this for seven years, yet people in New York City have no idea; meanwhile one of the largest Columbus Day parades in the world is held here.
So here we have an amazing company, Honeysuckle, that reached out to us, saying that this is an awesome opportunity, and [Honeysuckle] fully stands behind this. This isn’t just a billboard to get their name up there, it’s something they are passionate about. They gave us creative control, rather than simply asking for our approval. We were asking how we see this going, what were our ideas. They wanted all the things that can make this a reality. And that is not something we see too often.
This is huge. This is a big huge statement. New York City, the biggest city in the country, on a billboard in Times Square, a landmark place, will be supporting Indigenous People’s Day.
Tell us about the event you’re helping organize through IPDNYC on Randall’s Island.
In 1969, in San Francisco Bay, Natives took over Alcatraz Island in response to the federal government's dismantlement of the promised funds. Natives protested, quietly getting on ships, going to the island, and they did it on Columbus Day. Since then, there have been Native people across the country standing up demanding the recognition of Indigenous People’s Day. We have stopped being silent–it’s far safer now to not be silent on it.
Now, seven years ago, three Indigenous, high-level leaders in corporate New York decided they wanted to celebrate rather than protest. They created a day of dedication for the resilience of our people, and used this as an opportunity to bring activists from across the country together.
It’s a 24-hour celebration that occurs on Randall’s Island. As always, there will be traditional style pow-wow and dancing. But there will also be African dancing, traditional Brazilian, Polynesian, and Filipino dancing. On Indigenous People’s Day, there will be a sunrise ceremony, tobacco ceremony and water ceremony. In a normal year, we sometimes have people from the high seas of Hawaii who come out and put their prayers in the water.
Sunday we have activists that are coming out from Line 3 in Minnesota that have been standing out to stop that pipeline from destroying Indigenous lands. As well as people from Standing Rock who have, literally, been putting their lives on the line for clean water for all of us, and other dignitaries from other tribal nations.
Towards the end there’s an amazing concert, featuring amazingly talented Native musicians. And perhaps most importantly, we have Lenape people who will be really in charge of this, telling us the true history of Manahatta.
What does the future hold for Ms. Chenae Bullock (Netooeusqua)?
I see the future being bright! Just kidding.
I know there are people looking at me; there are young people that are watching everything I do and watching how I do those things. I want to go as far as I can, but as for where I land, that’s all in Creator’s plan. I’m not the kind of person to list all the things I want; I just want to make sure that I’m creating a large enough path for any of the people who have been watching me to follow. Going as far as I can and making sure I have the right people around me who will continue to uplift me and help me create more space for others to go just as far.
Join Chenae Bullock and IPDNYC on Randall's Island for Indigenous People's Day 2021! For more information, visit ipdnyc.org or follow @ipdnyc on Instagram. Also visit 1515 Broadway (Broadway and 45th Street) in Times Square to see the Indigenous People's Day billboard with Little Beach Harvest, Conor Green and Honeysuckle through midnight on October 12.
To learn more about Chenae Bullock and the Shinnecock Indian Nation, visit moskehtuconsulting.com or follow @moskehtuconsulting on Instagram. For more on Little Beach Harvest, visit littlebeachharvest.com or follow @littlebeachharvest on Instagram.
Featured image: Chenae Bullock, Managing Director of Little Beach Harvest (C) Little Beach Harvest / Moskehtu Consulting