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A Meaningful Grand Marshal

Thu, 09/14/2023 - 05:58


Considering what the English colonists who founded East Hampton in the mid-1600s did to the land’s original inhabitants, it is a remarkable act of grace that the Montaukett Chief Robert Pharaoh agreed to be the grand marshal for the town’s 375th anniversary parade on Sept. 23.

Most any schoolkid knows generally that the English “bought” land from the native people, but that semifactual view obscures what really happened. From the start, the English excluded Indigenous people economically — and physically. For Mr. Pharaoh and Montauketts living on the East End and across the country, the parade — and a declaration of support from the East Hampton Town Board — could help carry a message to the governor’s office that is more than 100 years past due.

Among the very first laws the colonists passed in East Hampton was a measure blocking Montaukett men from entering their settlement. They also ordered that no guns, swords, lead shot, or gunpowder be sold to the Indigenous people, on pain of an extremely costly penalty; one William Fithian was the first East Hampton colonist to be fined. The English soon ordered that the Montaukett “barns,” underground lined places they stored grain to eat during the winter months, be immediately filled in. The colonists were prohibited from selling dogs to them. And it gets worse: In 1653, the town leaders took steps to limit the sale of food to the Montauketts and neighboring tribes as well.

The English were ravenous when it came to land. Among the original documents I have seen was a 1702 agreement in which a native man named Ungomont relinquished all claim to his ancestral land, saving for himself only the right to continue planting crops. The ultimate insult came in the early-20th century, when a decades-long effort by the Montauketts to regain what was wrongly taken ended when a judge declared the tribe extinct. The so-called extinction solidified the purchase of all Montauk lands by the developer Arthur Benson, a stripping away of land from the Montauketts that began when Sachem Wyandanch made a land-for-protection deal with Lion Gardiner in the late-17th century, as the late Russell Drumm once described in these pages.

Since then, the Montauketts have been fighting to regain their official status as seen by New York State and federal authorities. Bills that would have granted tribal recognition would pass in the State Legislature then be vetoed by governors. This year, the Montauketts and their supporters took a new approach, sidestepping the arduous recognition process. Instead, the Legislature approved a new bill that would overturn the erroneous extinction ruling made by State Supreme Court Justice Abel Blackmar in 1910. Gov. Kathy Hochul must now sign the bill into law to begin repaying the Montauketts for the centuries of wrongs done to them.


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