Cuomo vetoes Montaukett recognition bill

Montauketts in 1924. A 1910 court ruling declared Montauketts in 1924. A 1910 court ruling declared the tribe extinct. (March 3, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has vetoed legislation that would have paved the way for state recognition of the Montaukett Indian Nation, a blow to a fractured tribe a state court declared extinct a century ago.

In a statement accompanying his veto late Friday, Cuomo said the bill's mandate to create a new recognition process similar to one conducted by the federal government would strain state resources. New York State has no recognition process for native tribes.

Cuomo directed his department of state to study the issue to determine the merits of Montaukett recognition.

"This legislation would mandate that the state adopt the federal government's intensive, expensive and lengthy process," Cuomo wrote in rejecting the bill. "The state does not have the extensive resources to conduct such an investigation."

The 1,500 Montaukett members, dispersed throughout Long Island and the Northeast after losing a 1910 court decision to reclaim their Montauk homelands, had hoped for the governor's signature on the bill to help reverse what the tribe has described as "judicial genocide."

The State Legislature passed the bill -- the Senate unanimously -- in June, and the tribe had all but declared victory.

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Passage in the legislature, the tribe wrote on its Montaukett.org website in July, "effectively erases the injustice perpetrated on the Montaukett people by state [Supreme Court] Judge Abel Blackmar so very long ago -- and paves the way to formal recognition within 180 days from the Governor signing the bill into law."

The tribe acknowledged it had "hurdles to overcome," namely Cuomo's approval, but wrote of a "glorious day" that awaited with final approval.

Robert Pharaoh, sachem of the Montaukett Indian Nation whose family has long led the tribe, said, "I am extremely disappointed in his decision."

He said neither Cuomo nor his staff reached out to meet with him or the tribe before denying its request.

"We're not asking for something we don't deserve," Pharaoh said, noting the tribe had been state recognized before 1910. "It's just another instance of the government telling us who we are."

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He said he's "more than happy to work with the state" to study the merits of the recognition request, the primary aim of which is to open a museum and cultural center in Montauk.

Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), who sponsored the legislation with Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), said he would study the governor's veto message and "see where we go next. I'm not giving up on this."

John Strong, an ethno-historian who has written extensively about local American Indian tribes, said the Montauketts might better further their cause in court. The federal criteria for recognition, which the state bill would have used, "is a very high bar," he said. "They need to attack the 1910 decision.

"A state judge doesn't have the authority to declare a tribe extinct, particularly when the tribe had state recognition," he said. The Montauketts "can say, 'We already have state recognition.' "

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