With two state lawmakers pledging support, the Montaukett Indian Nation is moving closer to its goal of securing state recognition and reversing a devastating 1910 court ruling that declared the tribe "disintegrated."
For the more than 1,200 tribal members who have been identified throughout the region and added to the tribal rolls, the prospect of state recognition represents a crucial unifying milestone and rallying point after years of dispersion and disappointment.
"It's like, wow, we have a reason to be proud," said tribal sachem Robert Pharaoh, whose family has led the tribe for centuries. "It's going to end a lot of frustration over the years, knowing that we once had so much and now have nothing."
Recently, state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said he was considering co-sponsoring legislation that would advance a plan to have the tribe recognized by New York State, and possibly carve out a parcel of state land in Montauk for tribal use.
"I have indicated I would be supportive," LaValle said after meeting this summer with Montaukett members.
Assemb. Fred Thiele, who has already sponsored state legislation that would allow the tribe to petition New York State for recognition, said he recently spoke with LaValle on the subject. "I'm certainly prepared to try to move the bill forward when we return to Albany in January," he said.
A spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last week declined to comment.
An expert on Long Island Indian history said there's no minimizing the significance of the recognition.
"It's big, there's no question about it," said John Strong, who recently completed a book titled "The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island." "They see it as an affirmation of their heritage."
The recognition also would grant the tribe state assistance for health care and education, among other benefits. Two other Island tribes, the Shinnecocks and the Unkechaugs, are recognized by New York.
Strong, who has written two books on the Montauketts, including "We Are Still Here!" about the survival of the tribe, said the legislation would "trump the court decision" that proclaimed the tribe extinct.
Tribal officials said they have no interest in casino gambling or other commercial activities, but are looking for a place in Montauk to hold tribal gatherings and ceremonies, and to house a cultural center. Camp Hero at Montauk Point is among the sites being considered.
"We are not asking for our land back," said Leighton Delgado, a tribal historian, consultant and member. "We're asking for use of the land."
Theile and LaValle said they would pursue passage of the bill in the 2012 session.
The tribe has been working to confirm its rolls, which have swelled to 1,200 members after meetings with known Montaukett clans in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Long Island and New York City. The tribe has two petitions before the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition, but the effort has been stalled for more than a decade.
Delgado, working closely with Pharaoh, said approval of state recognition would go a long way toward easing more than a century of pain that accompanied the Oct. 11, 1910, ruling by state Supreme Court Justice Abel Blackmar. "It destroyed the tribe," he said.
Blackmar upheld the purchase of individual land rights by Arthur Benson in the late 1800s, after which members evicted from Indian Fields in Montauk scattered throughout the Northeast and beyond.
In his ruling, Blackmar added insult to injury by declaring: "There is now no tribe of Montauk Indians. It has disintegrated and been absorbed into the mass of citizens. If I may use the expression, the tribe has been dying for many years."
Strong said the judge, in rejecting the Montauketts' claim to the land, defied years of colonial law that held Indian land could only be transferred with the permission of the New York governor or a tribe itself, not individual Indians. Indeed, the law Blackmar cited in his ruling, the Dongan Patent, specifically restricts the transfer of Indian land to any party except to the town of East Hampton.
Strong said the only way Benson could properly have bought the land was through an act of the state Legislature, "which he didn't get."
LaValle said he would spend the next few months studying the state recognition process, and the options of the state legislation. "My role is to be supportive of these efforts," he said. "I'm willing to work to go through the process to get state recognition."