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New York Governor Again Rebuffs Montauketts

Wed, 11/22/2023 - 09:56

Tribe, town decry fifth veto of recognition

New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul
Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

The Montaukett Indian Nation has again been denied official recognition, with Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday vetoing a bill that would have restored the tribe’s status as a sovereign Indigenous nation and that had been approved unanimously earlier this year by the State Legislature.

Her veto marked the fifth time within a decade that a New York State governor has axed such legislation. Governor Hochul previously vetoed a Montaukett recognition bill in December 2022, and her predecessor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, did so with similar bills in 2013, 2017, and 2018.

“She probably knew she was going to reject it, but to do it during Native American History Month? It’s inhumane and cruel and racist,” said Sandi Brewster-walker, the executive director and government affairs officer of the Montaukett Indian Nation. On Thursday, the day before the veto, Nunnowa — a traditional Native American thanksgiving holiday — was celebrated by the Shinnecock Indian Nation, which along with the Unkechaug are the only other tribes on Long Island, unlike the Montauketts, that has official recognition from the State. 

On Monday, New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who sponsored the bill in the Assembly, denounced the governor’s action as “a regrettable mistake,” saying that “an error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.”

According to Mr. Thiele, the basis for the governor’s veto lay in the 1910 State Supreme Court case Pharaoh v. Benson, which he said was discredited some time ago as “one of the most racist decisions in the history of New York jurisprudence.”

In that case, which pitted the Montauketts against Arthur Benson, who sought to develop lands in Montauk in the late 1800s, New York State unfairly stripped the Montaukett tribe of its status.

In the 1910 court case, justices ruled that “the tribe has disintegrated and been absorbed into the mass of citizens. . . .” It ignored precedent set in 1848 by the United States Supreme Court that established “the primary criteria for Indian identity” as having “some genealogical connection with a recognized group that had existed before the arrival of the European white explorers, traders, and settlers.”

“Instead of rejecting the noxious rationale of Benson,” Mr. Thiele said in a statement, Governor Hochul’s veto “reaffirmed it. I am ashamed of our state government. However, it only serves as motivation for me to rededicate my efforts to ensure the Montauketts receive the justice they so much deserve.”

Ms. Brewster-walker said she has appealed to the State Legislature to override the governor’s veto, which they would have to do in a special session before Dec. 31. Otherwise, she said, “we start from square one again.” She also said the Montauketts are considering taking the governor to court: “We’re going to fight this.”

East Hampton Town officials have recognized the Montauketts’ history and continued presence here. In September, the Town signaled its support when it invited the Montaukett chief, Robert Pharaoh, to be the grand marshal of the town’s 375th anniversary parade.

The tribe was “the original indigenous inhabitants of the area that in 1648 was incorporated into the Town of East Hampton,” the town said in a statement in September.

Mr. Pharaoh said at the time that he was grateful for the town’s recognition because “every little bit helps” in the process of reinstatement in the eyes of New York State. He could not be reached for comment this week.

“I’m disappointed,” Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said Tuesday. “The circumstances under which the tribe was deemed essentially extinct was a very unfortunate time in our history.”

He pledged to “continue to do what I can to help the Montauketts achieve their goal,” because Pharaoh v. Benson “frankly should have been overturned a while ago.”

In her veto memorandum, Governor Hochul wrote that she has “great respect for” Native American nations and is “committed to continuing” efforts to improve relations with them. However, she said, the Montauketts still have not supplied “the detailed information required by the state recognition process,” and that this lack became the basis for her veto.

“The group was provided with a letter identifying what information it could provide to the state that would allow the state to reach a positive decision on its behalf,” Governor Hochul wrote. “To date, the Montaukett Indian Nation has not provided that required information.”

Ms. Brewster-walker, though, said she has already provided the governor’s office with “volumes of information.”

“I don’t know what more she wants,” Ms. Brewster-walker said. “We exist.”

This story has been updated to correct the number of Indigenous tribes on Long Island with state recognition.


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