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First Step — Again — for Montauketts

Thu, 06/08/2023 - 10:18

The New York State Legislature has unanimously voted in favor of a bill to reinstate state recognition and acknowledgement of the Montaukett Indian Nation.

The bill, co-sponsored by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and State Senator Anthony Palumbo, now goes to Gov. Kathy Hochul, who vetoed similar legislation in December. Her predecessor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, vetoed similar bills in 2013, 2017, and 2018.

Recognition and acknowledgement of the Montauketts “was improperly removed” by a 1910 State Supreme Court decision, Pharaoh v. Benson — the former a Montaukett, the latter Arthur Benson, a developer who had acquired much of Montauk in the late 19th century — “when the Montaukett Indian Nation was declared to be ‘extinct,’ “ according to the bill.

That court had ruled that “the tribe has disintegrated and been absorbed into the mass of citizens. . . .” The ruling was arbitrary, according to the bill, ignoring earlier United States Supreme Court decisions defining Indian nations “according to criteria under which the Montaukett Indian Nation qualified as an existing sovereign tribe and giving Congress, rather than the courts, power to decide the status of an Indian.”

The bill cites previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including an 1848 ruling that “the primary criteria for Indian identity was evidence that an Indian had to have some genealogical connection with a recognized group that had existed before the arrival of the European white explorers, traders, and settlers. Verified evidence demonstrates that the Montaukett Indian Nation existed prior to the Doctrine of Discovery” — which dates to the 12th century and was historically used to justify seizure of land inhabited by non-Christians — “and, as a sovereign tribe, ruled from the end of the Island to what is today the town of Hempstead.”

A 1901 U.S. Supreme Court decision “further defined an Indian tribe as ‘a body of Indians of the same or similar race, united in a community under one leadership or government and inhabiting a particular though sometimes well-defined territory,’ “ the bill continues. “The Montaukett Indian Nation also met this criteria.”

The State Legislature, the bill reads, “finds that in Pharaoh v. Benson, the court improperly ignored U.S. Supreme Court precedent and lacked jurisdiction to judge the status of the Montaukett Indian Nation.”

Before the 1910 decision, the state recognized the Montauketts, Mr. Thiele noted. “Despite stark criticism from other courts,” he said in a statement last week, Pharaoh v. Benson “has shamefully remained on the books for 113 years.”

He pointed to the enactment of the Unmarked Burial Site Protection Act in the recently passed state budget, which requires landowners to halt development if a burial site is discovered on private property, and criminalizes removal, damage, or sale of remains or funerary items. The governor had vetoed the bill last year despite its unanimous approval in the State Legislature.

Passage of the act, Mr. Thiele said in the statement, “marks a new beginning between the governor and all Indian nations in the state. I am hopeful that we can build on that success and that the governor will take a fresh look at this issue. It is time to finally correct this historical wrong by considering the facts and the law as they existed in 1910.”

“I urge the governor to sign this legislation into law and reinstate the nation’s status that they should have never lost,” Mr. Palumbo said. “Now is the time to correct this injustice and provide the Montaukett Indian Nation with the status they deserve under law.”

The governor’s press office did not reply to an email on Monday seeking information as to her intentions with respect to the bill.

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