State Legislature Clears A Path For Montaukett Recognition

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The Montaukett Indian Nation moved closer to New York State recognition this week, as bills setting a procedure for tribal recognition cleared the State Assembly on Thursday and the State Senate on Tuesday.

The measure now goes to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo for his signature.

The Assembly vote count announced on Thursday was 98-5, according to Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who first introduced the bill back in 2006. On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously passed a similar bill by a vote of 62-0.

A state court declared the Montaukett Tribe extinct while weighing in on a land claim case, Pharaoh v. Benson et al., in 1910, that extinguished their rights to land in Montauk. Mr. Thiele called that a “grave injustice” and said that Montauketts “continue to live in our community, maintain their culture and govern themselves.”

In a statement on Tuesday, Mr. LaValle said, “Passage of this bill is a huge step forward for the Montauketts, who, for over 100 years, have been trying to reverse this injustice.”

Leighton Delgado, a tribal consultant for the Montauketts, said the tribe’s members have dispersed across the country and successfully assimilated in mainstream culture—ironically, in part because they lost their land in Montauk through the 1910 court decision. On Long Island, there are still several hundred Montauketts living in East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Amityville and in an enclave of Freeport, among other places, Mr. Delgado said.

State recognition is important to the tribe, he said, but not for the reasons some might think.

“We’re not interested in selling cigarettes … we’re not interested in vices like gambling,” he said. “What we are interested in is environmental protection.” He said the Montauketts want to lend their voice to efforts to protect groundwater and other natural resources, as well as to “restore the honor” of the Montauketts. “It’s important to get the history correct,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Delgado said, the Montaukett Indian Nation would like permission to use a portion of Camp Hero State Park in Montauk as a spot for gatherings.

The Montauketts would need federal tribal recognition for any gaming plans, both Mr. Thiele and Mr. Delgado said. A group led by Robert Pharaoh, which Mr. Delgado represents, filed for federal recognition in 1995, but that application is deadlocked by a competing claim filed by a splinter group in 1998. “We’re not withdrawing our petition. We’re not pushing it either,” Mr. Delgado said.

Under the state bill, the Montauketts could petition the state to restore their sovereign status, with the secretary of state evaluating their petition and making a recommendation to the State Legislature, which would make the final determination. Previously, Native American groups have been recognized by the state through an act of the legislature. The new legislation would put objective criteria in place for evaluating such a request, Mr. Thiele said late last week.

According to the assemblyman, the legislation could help other tribes earn state recognition, as well. The last tribe to be recognized by the state was the Poospatucks, about 45 years ago, he said, while the Shinnecock Indian Nation has been state-recognized since the late 18th century.

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