Southampton Town officials are looking to frame new town laws to preserve unmarked ancient American Indian burial grounds unearthed during excavation and other construction.

The proposed laws would stop any activity if human remains are discovered, or artifacts found that may lead someone to believe it could be an ancient burial site, even on private property. It would also apply to any other human remains found in unmarked graves.

State representatives also want to change laws to protect unmarked graves.

"My concern is that we aren't just talking about ideals, but we actually find practical steps we can take to help protect these important artifacts," said Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming.

Shinnecock Nation representatives recently spoke to town board members at a work session to push for the new regulations, which are complicated by state and federal protections of privately owned land.

The nation's members have seen it happen before. In 2006, the skull of an American Indian ancestor was found at the site of the former St. James Hotel on Montauk Highway in Water Mill during excavation.

The property was later purchased by the town through its Community Preservation Fund, to be held in perpetuity.

The 2006 find, along with another one in 2003 of ancestral skeletons on private property on Shelter Island, inspired the Indian community to push for action to protect land wherever ancient burial remains are found.

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The Shinnecock believe another property preserved by the town, about 10 acres on Montauk Highway in Hampton Bays and where tribal ceremonies are held, holds unmarked graves.

"We did not begin here in Southampton in 1640," said Rebecca Genia, 55, a member of the Shinnecock Nation, noting the year Southampton was founded. "God put us here thousands and thousands of years ago. Our entire land is covered with burial grounds. It is all sacred."

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State Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) and state Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) have companion bills that would make it a crime to move remains found during excavation, along with protocol if remains are discovered. The text of the proposed laws says that New York is one of only four states in the country without protection of unmarked burial sites. Englebright plans to get it back on the floor for discussion in January.

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"It's the right thing to do for our Native American neighbors and fellow citizens, and out of respect for all of those who may be in graves that are unmarked," Englebright said.

The town will also work with Shinnecock Nation officials to map areas that are known or suspected to be ancient burial sites.

 

About the tribe

 

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Oct. 1, 2010