For the first eight years of his life, Jeremy Dennis knew his grandmother Loretta Silva — Princess Silva Arrow of the Shinnecock Nation — only as “Ma.”
And, even from a young age, he realized that she carried the lifeblood of the family.
Ma welcomed generation after generation into her home on the Shinnecock Territory, ensuring every child in her family grew up surrounded by love and warmth, discipline and support, including Mr. Dennis. Before he was born, she would throw mini-powwows on the front lawn, drawing crowds from all over — even from abroad — to visit the house and see native crafts and beadwork, eat traditional corn cooked in the earth layered under seaweed, and watch tribe members dance and sing, dressed in their finest regalia.
It was a place for family and tradition. And when Ma died in 1998, a part of that was lost, pushed aside, as was the upkeep of the house.
With the help of a GoFundMe campaign, her youngest grandson is on his way toward repairing what has become broken — both literally, through a long overdue restoration of the place the family still calls “Ma’s House,” despite its longtime vacancy, and figuratively, by turning it into a space for community and celebration once more.
“I didn’t know Ma very well, unfortunately, but she just always, again and again, said it had to be a museum, or it had to be a place that family could always come back to,” explained Mr. Dennis, who is an artist and photographer.
“So I’m just dedicated to that idea in my work as an individual artist, with my obsession with history, but also because on the reservation, there is sometimes family drama or family issues, and I think that sometimes all it takes is a place for us to gather to try to resolve them.”
In less than two weeks, the campaign has raised $13,000 of its $50,000 target — with $11,000 raised in the first three days. The positive response initially felt overwhelming, said Mr. Dennis, whose efforts come at a time when rallying cries over inequality are erupting across the country.
“It’s just incredible,” he said of the campaign’s rapid pace. “I think it speaks to the idea of just what’s happening in the country right now, with people of color being disproportionately affected by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the police violence and the social justice movements. I think people are learning more and more, and feeling more empathy toward these causes.
“Now, more than ever, is a good time for indigenous people and people of color to share their stories and their perspectives and their experiences,” he continued. “We need to amplify important messages about who we really are, what’s important to us and what’s happening to us, in some cases.”
Unable to apply for a mortgage while living on a Native American reservation, where land is not privately owned, Mr. Dennis has exhausted his own funds to clean out the house, readying it for its eventual restoration, which will include heating, electricity and plumbing systems.
“Two days ago, I turned 30, so now that I’m in my 30s, I’m realizing all these problems,” he said. “It’s almost so bad, it’s hysterical. The utilities in the house and how everything was put together, it’s embarrassing to even say.”
The story begins 65 years ago on a plot of land near the southernmost tip of the Shinnecock Territory. There, using the money they had scraped together, Ms. Silva and her husband, Peter Silva Sr. — traditional chief of the Hassanamisco Band of Indians of Grafton, Massachusetts — improvised and built the quirky 3,000-square-foot house that stands today, providing shelter for the couple and their six children.
But the home started to fall into disrepair almost immediately, Mr. Dennis said, between its 100-year-old wood and windows, repurposed from a once-crumbling church in Riverhead, to its location along the marshes, opening it up to flooding, mold and dry rot.
“I think, immediately, as soon as you allow the elements to take over, it rusts everything and makes the wood soft,” Mr. Dennis said. “I think it was just early on. It was just known that, eventually, people would have to move out if nothing was done immediately. Every time I go down there, it’s, like, ‘How did I even grow up here and how do I not have some coughing condition?’ That’s what we’re trying to overcome and fix now.”
So far, members of the community have stopped by to help with the renovation, initially out of sheer curiosity after seeing the door open for the first time in two years.
“They just wander into the house without announcing themselves. They’re like, ‘Who’s here? What’s happening?’” Mr. Dennis said. “Some people lend a hand carrying stuff. And so I hope that carries on once we’re actually moved in, where people continue to just feel like they’re welcome there.”
When completed, Ma’s House will not just be a home, where Mr. Dennis sees himself residing, but also a place that hosts educational programs for the Shinnecock youth and tribal community, and the area at large. The museum will also house an art studio, office and dance space, indoors or out, where Black and Indigenous people, and other people of color, can feel safe to work and share their creative processes with the public.
“As soon as we started the project, my father and I, my mom said that she was so happy that something was being done with the house, and she kind of felt a sense of relief that we were working on it and not letting it fall into disrepair,” Mr. Dennis said. “Because throughout the reservation, there are houses that you can pass by very easily and not notice, just because the trees have grown over it, or trees have fallen onto them and they are no longer habitable. But families have grown up there, one or two generations, and they just couldn’t afford to restore it or get a contractor, especially out here.”
Economic injustice and health disparities within minority communities have become more apparent than ever during the coronavirus pandemic and rise of social justice activism against police brutality, bigotry and systemic racism, Mr. Dennis said, which has shown him not only a deep urgency for artists of color to have safe spaces, but also the through-lines running parallel on the East End.
“I think that what’s happening is, throughout the country, police brutality is taking the lives of Black Americans, but here in the Hamptons, what we’re seeing is just an inaccess to jobs and resources and land from the Shinnecock’s perspective,” Mr. Dennis said. “And to me, as an artist, I think by getting public understanding, we’re going to be able to improve our livelihoods and our opportunities both using empathy as a tool, but also art and photography, as well.”
Mr. Dennis aims to have the work completed by fall or, at the latest, winter. The distinction between outdoors and indoors is lessening by the day, and local wildlife, like raccoons, agree — seizing the opportunity to burrow into the old, soft church wood and build nests.
“I’m trying not to get too stressed out,” he said with a laugh, “and I think the thing I’m enjoying the most is just learning how to take care of a house. Some people joke around and say that they kind of feel something in the house. It is a very comfortable place, so maybe there are some family members still present.
“But I think Ma would be very happy knowing that something that she and her husband, Peter, worked on so hard is being maintained — and family is living there once again.”