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Helen Sells

By Sofia Levorchick

The 8th annual Chicken Hill Country Picnic and Barbecue, hosted by the Three Village Community Trust on Saturday, Aug. 19, gathered over 100 people on the grounds of the Bruce House at 148 Main St. in Setauket to celebrate the history of Chicken Hill and support TVCT.

Attendees enjoyed live music and the spread of barbecued food catered by Bagel Express, with opportunities to participate in raffles and learn about Chicken Hill’s history through TVCT’s videos.

The event began around 4 p.m., with TVCT president Herb Mones delivering a speech of gratitude, thanking the community members for their continual support. He awarded The Mr. and Mrs. De Zafra Scholarship and Dr. Watson Scholarship to two devoted teen volunteers: 15-year-old Lily Rosengard and 17-year-old Eve Rosengard, respectively.

“The organization has a large impact on our community, and I am beyond grateful to play a part in their events and help out my community,” Eve Rosengard said of this honor.

Eve and her sister Lily assisted in setting up this year’s Chicken Hill event as volunteers and the daughters of the trust’s artistic director, Michael Rosengard. Michael Rosengard featured prominently in organizing the event, enhancing the grounds with antiques, paintings, handmade decorations and photographs. 

Motivated by his ownership of two of the factory homes on his street and his membership in the TVCT, Michael Rosengard took it upon himself to research the historical background of the factory homes. He further coordinated that with articles that state when the houses were built, solidifying their origins.

“This event is aimed toward commemorating the history of Chicken Hill,” Michael Rosengard said. “Without that recognition of our history, people wouldn’t realize the importance of where they live.”

As Mones concluded his speech, he shifted his focus to commemorating the history of the Chicken Hill area, which was home to factory tenements that accommodated immigrants who worked at a five-story factory that was previously situated across from the Bruce House. 

That factory produced shoes, belts, baskets and hoses until it burnt down in the early 20th century. Chicken Hill was deemed its name as those who lived in the area began raising chickens that were often let out to run awry and came back home at night to be fed. 

Mones connected this history to the present-day community. “The three houses behind me were those provided to the immigrants by the factory, and they have been preserved by the Trust,” he said. “I think what’s important is that we come and celebrate Chicken Hill. We look back, but we also recognize with gratitude where we are today.”

Among the attendees present were numerous community leaders, including New York State Assemblyman Ed Flood (R-Port Jefferson), Town of Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Setauket), former state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) — who is running against Anthony Figliola for the Suffolk County Legislature’s 5th District — and business leader Dave Calone, a Democrat running against Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) for Suffolk County executive.

Kornreich has been involved in this event for years, this time strumming the guitar and singing some tunes in the live band. He said the event has progressed significantly each year, particularly noting its emphasis on celebrating the land on which it is held. 

“I admire the opportunity to get together with the people who are the original inhabitants who grew up here, like Helen Sells,” president of the Setalcott Native American Council, Kornreich said. “It’s important to honor them and respect their continued residency in this area.”

Calone had attended the event in the past and said he had enjoyed it every time. “I think what’s great about the event is that it brings people of all different ages from all around this community to understand the history we have in our area,” he said. “It helps us remember where we came from as a community.”

While in office, Englebright helped secure funds to preserve the historical houses on Chicken Hill. Englebright’s successor Flood said he plans to continue this work, preserving the Chicken Hill houses and maintaining their historical significance within the Three Village community. 

“This area is rich in history, dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War,” Flood noted. “It’s highly important to maintain the history so that the future generations can continue to learn about the history of their neighborhoods.”

Sells, also known as Morning Star, took part in this event. She was raised on the lands of Chicken Hill, describing a sense of deep connection to the area.

“This is home,” the Setalcott leader said. “It will always be home. There are so many memories here,” adding, “I love it here. This event means a lot to me.”

Volunteers and trust members said the event has made notable progress over the past eight years. While raising money for the trust, the event has also fostered awareness about the value of the Three Village community’s local history.

“Throughout the years I’ve attended and volunteered, the event has grown and expanded,” Eve Rosengard said. “I’m ecstatic to see that growth, and I can’t wait for what next year has to bring.”

Kevin and Helen Sells, above, at the Setalcott Nation Corn Festival and Powwow. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

[email protected]

Two of the events which bring family members back to Setauket from all over the country are the Hart-Sells reunion, held during Labor Day weekend in September, and the Setalcott Nation PowWow and Corn Festival held this year on July 8 and 9 on the Setauket Elementary School field.

Kevin Sells pictured in front of the Three Village Community Trust’s restored rubber factory houses. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

Kevin Sells, now retired and living in Tucson, Arizona, made the trip east this year to renew his connection to Setauket and to be with the cousins and other relatives he usually communicates with from a distance. Kevin’s cousin, Helen Sells, who suggested Kevin come to this year’s powwow said he and I should meet as he is a fellow family historian who spent a lot of time in Setauket when he was growing up. Helen introduced me to Kevin, and we spent a few hours together around Setauket, in the Chicken Hill exhibit at the Three Village Historical Society History Center and at the Three Village Community Trust’s rubber factory houses.

Kevin commented while viewing the Chicken Hill exhibit, “The biggest part of it I remember is my great-aunt Mamie, my grandfather’s sister.” He remembered Mrs. Hart lived in a big old house just a few yards south of 25A along Old Town Road. “The place, it wasn’t as sturdy as it could have been but the place was full of love — of laughter … My mother used to tell me stories, my mother — all my aunts and uncles — used to tell me stories about how as soon as school let out over in [Bridgeport] Connecticut, all the parents got their kids together and marched them down to the ferry, which my great-grandfather worked on for many years. His name was John E. Sells, everyone around here knew him as Dass … He worked on the ferry for 25 or 30 years. So all the kids, they get shoved up the gangplank onto the ferry and great-grandpa was there to make sure they behaved and no one fell over the side and so on and so forth. And we had another family member … who had a cab company. They’d be two taxis to meet the kids when he herded them down the gangplank … we’re talking about 15-20 kids … everybody piled into that one little house … parents would come over on the weekend. That was always a great thing.”

Painting of Sarah Ann Sells by Ray Tyler in the Chicken Hill exhibit at the Three Village Historical Society.

He noted they would always come over for the Hart-Sells reunion as well. “We’d all meet at the hall. The hall was in pretty good shape at that time. There’d be just hundreds of us that would show up and all us kids would run around. Eventually we’d all end up running up and down the hill of Laurel Hill Cemetery.”

Kevin noted that when he came to Setauket as an adult the first thing he would do was to climb up Laurel Hill to talk to Sarah Ann. There was no stone for her for many years but he would find a place close to where he thought she was. He mentioned the lack of a stone. He continued, “It was years before Sarah Ann got a stone … She was the matriarch of the whole darn family … Last time I’d seen her I was probably five years old. She was living in the house on Gnarled Hollow … we didn’t know her that well because we were little kids.”

Looking at the painting of Sarah Ann in the exhibit, Kevin noted that the smell on her tobacco was one of his most vivid remembrances. “That memory sticks after all these years … That smell just permeated the air around her … any time I smell that particular type of pipe tobacco it snaps me right back. 

“She kind of doted on me and Mamie’s granddaughter. We were like the last of the great-grandchildren she got to cuddle and play with — spoil a bit … How many people did she deliver in this town as a midwife? She made sure they came into the world … She was a trusted individual.”

I truly appreciate that the historical society is putting this exhibit together … this is forgotten history … Chicken Hill is — most people who drive up and down the road have no idea whatsoever that all that existed — that all those lives were affected.”

At the rubber factory houses Kevin commented, “I’m really impressed with what’s being done around here, there seems to be like a critical mass of people who come together to say ‘well no — maybe we shouldn’t do that …’ A town that remembers its past is always going to have a good future.” 

Beverly C. Tyler is a Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730.

Graphic from CSD website

The New York State Education Department is cracking down on Native American mascots in schools, and Comsewogue School District is now in its sights.

In a Nov. 17 letter sent out to districts across the state, NYSED senior deputy commissioner James Baldwin alerted school administrators that using Native American mascots, team names or imagery is prohibited “without current approval from a recognized tribe.” 

Districts failing to meet these standards, Baldwin wrote, “may be in willful violation of the Dignity [for All Students] Act.” The penalty for violators could “include the removal of school officers and the withdrawal of state aid.”

Facing the threat of losing state aid, CSD officials will have to work against the clock. NYSED is placing a deadline on school districts, ordering them to retire these mascots before the end of the 2022-23 school year.

The Education Department is developing new regulations to clarify its policy, with a release date anticipated sometime in April. Until then, New York school districts remain in limbo.

Jennifer Quinn, superintendent of schools at Comsewogue School District, said the district would not make any policy determinations until NYSED releases its detailed guidelines. 

“There are so many question marks,” she said. “Until we see the actual regulations, we’re kind of playing a guessing game.”

While school districts statewide undergo significant changes in the coming months, certain characteristics may set Comsewogue apart from the pack.

Emblazoned at the center of the high school’s turf field is a district logo containing Native American imagery. Photo from Google Maps

Historical background

Before Europeans had ever stepped foot on Long Island, from present day St. James to Wading River and as far south as Gordon Heights, the Setalcott Nation once inhabited the lands. Within that territory lies Port Jefferson Station/Terryville, an area known to the Setalcotts as Comsewogue, meaning “place where paths come together.” 

The Terryville-Comsewogue School District was formed in 1874, and the senior high school opened nearly a century later in 1971. The school district has prominently showcased its precolonial heritage along with its name. 

One district emblem contains the initials “CSD” with a feather draped over its side. Another logo displays a visually striking profile depicting a Setalcott. This logo is etched ubiquitously throughout the district’s website, school walls and at the center of the high school’s turf athletic field. Sports teams are called “the Warriors.”

Setalcott reaction

Helen Sells is president of the Setalcott Native American Council. In an interview, she said she is personally not offended by the use of Setalcott images and references in Comsewogue schools. Sells referred to the term “warrior” as a distinction among her ancestors. 

“It was an honor for our men, and some of the women, to serve for our country and for the freedoms of all,” she said. “The men were considered warriors because they had to go out and hunt for food and hold the community together.”

Asked whether Comsewogue School District should continue using Setalcott mascots, team names and imagery, Sells responded affirmatively. “To me, it’s important as a family to try to keep that history going,” she said.

Whether this response constitutes “current approval from a recognized tribe” is still to be determined. NYSED declined to comment for this story.

Debating mascots, logos and team names

‘The state takes the approach that one size fits all. They’re not looking into every local district.’ ­

— Ed Flood

New York State Assemblyman Ed Flood (R-Port Jefferson), whose 4th Assembly District encompasses CSD, said the state has more pressing educational concerns than deciding mascots and team names.

“There’s so much wrong in education right now,” he said. “I think our kids — I see it in my own children being out of the classroom for so long — are kind of behind,” adding, “We have bigger problems to fix.”

A Comsewogue alum, Flood held that the logos and team name were not intended to deride Native Americans. “It’s not used in any way to be offensive,” he said. “Comsewogue is a pretty diverse district with people of all races and ethnicities. We were all proud to put on that jersey, and we understood what it represented.”

Flood’s predecessor in the state Assembly, Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), offered that ethical dilemmas often require moderation and restraint by decision-makers. He cited the example of the U.S. Army renaming bases that had honored former Confederates.

“I believe the model for what should be done is probably the way that the U.S. Army has approached the question of renaming military bases,” Englebright said. “The approach was to set up — two, I believe — study commissions and to give thoughtful consideration if there is a controversy.” He added, “I’m not sure there is a controversy here.”

State aid conundrum

Debates surrounding state contributions to public education have been ongoing for over a century and a half, said Campbell Scribner, assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland College of Education in College Park. 

In an interview, he traced the historical trends of public education in the United States, highlighting the complexities surrounding state aid.

“One of the ambiguities or tensions in American education is that, constitutionally, there has never been a federal right to education, but there is a state right,” he said. “Since at least the Civil War, all state constitutions make provisions for public education.” 

However, until the early to mid-20th century, state funding lagged behind local contributions. “Although states have a constitutional obligation to provide education, they didn’t fund it very well,” Scribner said.

Without organized state bureaucracies or state income tax, school districts generated revenue primarily through local property taxes. This model offered considerable local autonomy in setting curricula and other districtwide standards.

‘States have taken a much more robust posture. They’ve taken more interest in what’s happening locally.’ ­

— Campbell Scribner

Invoking social reforms

The dynamic between states and school boards changed as state aid began to comprise a heftier chunk of school districts’ overall budgets. With the injection of state funds, Scribner suggests power has shifted away from local school officials and into the hands of state bureaucrats. 

“States have taken a much more robust posture,” Scribner said, adding, “They’ve taken more interest in what’s happening locally.”

With more say over budgeting, states have found leverage in setting curricula and social standards within school districts. Moreover, the threat of revoking state aid can be an effective instrument.

Despite the state’s newfound power, this approach has limits: “The state certainly does not want to come across as coercive,” Scribner said. “I don’t think it’s going to help state legislators to look like they’re bullying local school boards or denying children education.”

“But on the other hand,” he added, “I don’t think, legally, the school boards have the sort of rights they might assume they do or the same prerogative against the states.”

Native American imagery

‘There’s a long history of European settlers appropriating Native American imagery.’ ­

— Andrew Newman

Within the scope of national and statewide politics, CSD is caught in a much broader web over the role of Native American imagery.

Andrew Newman is a professor and chair in the English Department at Stony Brook University whose research focuses on the intersection of early American, indigenous and media studies. 

Newman shared that Native American imagery within popular culture is a centuries-old practice dating back to the 18th century.

“There’s a long history of European settlers appropriating Native American imagery,” he said. “There was an idea of Native Americans as being sort of tied to the land, athletic, representing this kind of uncivilized masculinity that was very attractive to the mainstream white culture.”

He added, “This phenomenon was referred to by the scholar Philip Deloria, in a book [of the same title] from 1998, as ‘Playing Indian.’”

Newman maintained that these portrayals often negatively affect self-perceptions within Native American communities, adding that such caricatures can minimize historical injustices.

The movement away from Native American mascots and team names has gradually developed within public education and professional sports. After years of resistance, the former Washington Redskins football and Cleveland Indians baseball franchises have finally changed their team names to more neutral identifiers, respectively the Commanders and Guardians.

Newman said mascots, team names and imagery can be hard to do away with because of the strong emotional ties these symbols can produce. This effect is especially prevalent within schools. 

“The students and families and communities that are associated with these schools are kind of attached to the school’s traditions,” the SBU professor said. “They’re hard to give up.”

Veneration vs. denigration

The debate over the use of Native American mascots surrounds two main arguments, according to Newman. On the one hand, proponents say these images glorify indigenous heritage and tradition. On the other, detractors view them as derogatory and offensive to Native Americans. 

Reflecting upon the function of public education, Newman noted the apparent contradiction between the mission to educate about local history while potentially alienating a segment of the local population.

“Especially in educational institutions, where presumably part of the mission is to educate the students about the local history, I don’t think that educational mission is compatible with the use of a Native American-themed mascot,” the SBU professor said.

‘When we do make our plan, we are very mindful of including every stakeholder.’ ­

— Jennifer Quinn

An opportunity for dialogue

Assessing NYSED’s approach, Flood suggested Albany is applying a blanket policy to a multifaceted issue. He contended the state government is neither informed of Comsewogue’s historical circumstances nor sensitive to the variations between tribes across Long Island.

“The state takes the approach that one size fits all,” the assemblyman said. “They’re not looking into every local district.”

While pressure comes down from Albany, Scribner said schools are uniquely suited to answer these moral questions through their abundant channels for local input.

“School politics remain one of the strongest and most accessible democratic spaces we have in this country,” the UM professor said. “They are, of course, hemmed in certain ways by state regulations. But again, I still think that if local voters really want something, they do have levers to pull.”

Quinn affirmed CSD’s commitment to working as a community through this sensitive local matter. “Nobody wants to do anything to make a child feel uncomfortable,” she said. “Ultimately, we have to see what [NYSED is] going to tell us we have to do, and then we can make a plan.”

The district superintendent concluded, “When we do make our plan, we are very mindful of including every stakeholder. Our community is going to be very involved.”

Englebright noted that CSD likely did not intend to disparage Native Americans when it created its logo and team name. 

Nonetheless, the former assemblyman reiterated that study commissions and community forums could be fruitful in working out competing ethical considerations. 

“History is complicated,” Englebright said. “That’s why I think this deserves some introspection.”

Timberwolf of the Setalcott Nation prepares to perform a war dance at last year's event. Photo by Lloyd Newman

By Kyle Barr

Every July for the past 11 years the sound of drums, yells, shouts and laughter has resonated from the grounds of the Setauket Elementary School. It is all part of the Setalcott Native American Nation’s Annual Corn Festival Pow-Wow, which returns this weekend. For Helen “Hart of Morning Star” Sells, one of the coordinators of the festival, those sounds are an important part of her family’s history and the history of her people.

A scene from last year’s Corn Festival Pow-Wow. Photo by Lloyd Newman

Sells is a member of the Setauket-based nation and can trace her lineage back four generations to Rachel Tobias Holland Hart, who is depicted in William Sidney Mount’s famous painting, “Eel Spearing at Setauket” (1845). The 76-year-old looks forward to helping to host the event every year.

“A Pow-Wow is a time where we get to celebrate the harvest that we receive from the great spirit each year” she said in a recent telephone interview. “We celebrate our history and make new friends. That’s what it’s basically about. It’s to let people know we’re still here.”

The Setalcott Nation was one of the first Native American tribes to encounter Europeans, selling 30 acres of land to colonists in 1655, in what would become the Town of Brookhaven. The name “Setauket” is derived from the Algonquin speaking Setalcotts whose members still reside in the areas around East Setauket, specifically along Conscience Bay.

A scene from last year’s event. Photo by Lloyd Newman

According to Sells, the Corn Festival Pow-Wow was founded in 2005 by her cousin, Theodore Green, who had been chief at the time. Green, who passed away in 2007, was asked to put an event together to educate the community about Native American culture as well as have them recognize the Setalcott Nation’s importance and history in the development of the surroundings towns and hamlets.

The family event will feature native traditional dances from the Bronx Taino Nation as well as Aztec fire dancers along with craft and food vendors, storytelling, singing, a candy dance for the children and much more.

A Grand Entry, which will be held at noon and 4 p.m. on Saturday, and at noon on Sunday, will honor the memory of World War I veterans with American Legion’s Hunter Squire Jackson Post 1218 (Amityville) and the Irving Hart Post 1466 (Setauket), among others.

The 12th annual Corn Festival Pow-Wow will be held at the Setauket Elementary School, 34 Main St., Setauket on July 8 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and July 9 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Bring seating. Admission and parking is free but donations are appreciated. For more information, call 631-698-5517 or 917-415-5139.

Gen. George Washington (John Galla) with his headquarter’s flag. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Brian Cea). Photo by Heidi Sutton
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Brian Cea). Photo by Heidi Sutton

The chilly 45-degree weather did not deter almost 300 brave souls who came out for a special walk through local history last Saturday night as the Three Village Historical Society held its 21st annual Spirits Tour, “The Culper Spy Ring: From Secrecy to Victory.”

“The Culper Spy Ring has really been making news lately,” Carolyn Benson, one of the tour guides, said. This tour shows “how many people from this area were involved.”

The host of the tour, Emma S. Clark, whose name graces the library in Setauket and was portrayed by Karin Lynch, set the scene for what was to come.

“The Culper Spy Ring was a group of men known as the Secret Six who helped George Washington win the war. … Their identity was so secretive that Gen. Washington never knew their true identity. Their messages were written in code and their letters were in invisible ink,” she said. “Tonight you will meet with these patriots and some loyalists who will share their stories with you about what it was like during and after the war.”

Helen ‘Morningstar’ Sells and Nellie Edwards of the Setalcott Nation. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Helen ‘Morningstar’ Sells and Nellie Edwards of the Setalcott Nation. Photo by Heidi Sutton

The 1.5-hour tours ran throughout the evening, beginning with the Young Historian tours. Each group, carrying flashlights and lanterns, was led through the cemeteries of the Setauket Presbyterian Church [established in the late 17th century] and the Caroline Church of Brookhaven [established in 1729].

All the key players were present, from the ring’s most active operatives — Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, Anna Smith Strong, James Rivington and Robert Townsend — to Gen. George Washington and Abraham Woodhull, the leader of the Culper Spy Ring, to Gen. Benedict Arnold, the infamous traitor. Woodhull, portrayed by Dennis O’Connor, appeared at the foot of his own grave in the Presbyterian cemetery during the tour.

Lesser-known community spirits made appearances as well, including Bette Harmon, born into slavery to the Strong family; Maj. John Andre, a British spy whose capture exposed Benedict Arnold as a traitor; loyalist Col. Benjamin Floyd; patriot Rev. Zachariah Greene; and a special appearance by  Setalcott Nation members Helen “Morning Star” Sells and Nellie Edwards. In total, 20 spirits were conjured to provide an insight into their lives during the Revolutionary War. The period costumes, provided by Nan Guzzetta, gave the entire event an eerily authentic feel.

Private David Williams (George Monez), Major John Andre (Pat DiVisconti), Private Isaac Van Wart (Sage Hardy). Photo by Heidi Sutton
Private David Williams (George Monez), Major John Andre (Pat DiVisconti), Private Isaac Van Wart (Sage Hardy). Photo by Heidi Sutton

At each stop, the spirits gave out secret codes that, when compiled and decoded, formed a secret letter for Gen. Washington, who was the last stop of the night.

Nine-year-old Alex Perrone, of Stony Brook, was experiencing the tour for the first time with his mother, Lauren, but came well prepared.

“My mom and I read a book called ‘Redcoats and Petticoats,’” he said.

Alex enjoyed the tour, especially meeting Washington and learning about the Setalcott tribe and their longhouses, and said he would definitely do it again. His mom agreed, adding, “I just thought it was really informative and I thought the actors were wonderful and I think it was a great way to learn about local history and this special place.”

In all, the 21st annual Spirits Tour was a rare historical treat. For more information, visit the historical society at www.tvhs.org.