Cuomo Vetoes Montaukett Recognition Bill


On Friday, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo vetoed a bill that would have paved a path for state recognition of the Montaukett Indian Nation. The Montauketts were disappointed but not devastated, according to Robert Pharaoh, their sachem, and Leighton Delgado, their tribal consultant.

“This might seem like a ‘terrible blow,’” Mr. Pharaoh wrote in a statement on the Montauk Indian Nation’s website. “Have faith. It is not as bad as it might seem, nor will it delay our ultimate goal of recognition for the Montaukett.

“It could actually accelerate it,” the chief’s message continued.

Under the bill, the state secretary of state would have reviewed the Montauketts’ petition, using criteria for federal tribal recognition, and made a recommendation to the State Legislature for a final decision.

In his veto, the governor objected to what he called a “mandate that the state adopt the federal government’s intensive, expensive and lengthy process” for recognition. “The state does not have the extensive resources to conduct such an investigation,” he wrote.

Instead, the governor simply directed the Department of State to study whether state recognition is warranted.

The bill had easily cleared both the State Assembly and State Senate in June. Sponsored by State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, it would have established a mechanism by which the Montauketts could petition to restore state recognition, which was revoked in a 1910 court case, Pharaoh v. Benson, that also revoked their rights to land in Montauk. The court declared the Montauketts to be extinct at that time.

A 1994 court decision deemed that decision to be of “questionable propriety,” according to Mr. Thiele.

In fact, there are still hundreds of Montauketts, even now, living in East Hampton, Sag Harbor and to the west on Long Island, Mr. Delgado had said when the legislation passed the Legislature in June. “We’re not trying to be casino mavens,” he said Monday; rather, state recognition would re-acknowledge the Montauketts as a historical indigenous entity. “We said, ‘Let’s correct the wrong that put us in this horrible place in the first place,” he said of the decision in Benson vs. Pharaoh.

The Montauketts well know how onerous federal recognition can be in terms of expense and time, with the need to hire lawyers and genealogists and, on average, a 12-year wait, Mr. Delgado said. They filed for federal recognition in the mid 1990s, but the application has been held up, and as an assimilated, dispersed group the Montauketts have even fewer resources than the state does to establish eligibility.

“So basically, we’re disappointed that this bill wasn’t made law … but we understand why he did it,” Mr. Delgado said of Governor Cuomo.

Had the bill passed, the Montauketts had hoped it could have been amended to eliminate the need to meet federal criteria. That may have been achieved anyway by the governor’s simple directive that the Department of State study whether “a state recognition is warranted.”

Like the Montauketts, Mr. Thiele, who first introduced the Assembly bill in 2006, expressed “disappointment” at the veto. In a press release he said the veto incorrectly stated that the legislation required the state to use the federal “process” of evaluation, rather than federal “standards,” for recognition.

“It was always the intent that there would be a shorter, more expeditious process with a lower level of proof,” Mr. Thiele said on Tuesday, adding that the last thing he’d wanted to do was subject the Montauketts to a review process involving “excruciating detail.”

It was still unclear what the secretary of state would use as guidelines, the assemblyman said, adding that he hoped leaders of the Montauketts would be involved in developing the study requested by the governor. One of two things might happen, the assemblyman said: Either the secretary of state recommends state recognition via an act of the Legislature, or Mr. Thiele will refile the bill making it even more clear that the process of state recognition is not intended to duplicate the process of federal recognition.

“A look at the history of this would lead any rational person to the conclusion that the Montauk Indians had their recognition wrongfully taken from them and that should be restored moving forward,” the assemblyman said.

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