Leaders of the Montaukett Indian Nation met last week with officials from Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration to urge her to back legislation they say will right a century-old wrong by restoring the tribe’s state recognition.
Legislation to secure the Long Island tribe’s recognition, authored by state Assemb. Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor), passed the State Legislature in the most recent session, as it has in past years, when former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vetoed it repeatedly.
This time, Montaukett leaders and supporters say they are hopeful Hochul's new administration will consider the years of work they’ve done to document the tribe’s history, their recognition by other tribal and local governments and the impact of a 1910 court ruling they say wrongfully declared the tribe extinct.
The tribe has more than 400 verified members on Long Island, and more than 1,200 across the United States, leaders said.
Avi Small, a spokesman for the governor's office, told Newsday Hochul was "reviewing the legislation." He declined to comment on last week's meeting.
Montaukett chief Robert Pharaoh, who for 35 years has pursued efforts to reinstate the tribe’s federal and state recognition, expressed hope Hochul would see the tribe’s quest differently.
Pharaoh noted voluminous historical and tribal membership information supplied to the state over the years in response to past requests.
“It’s about correcting an injustice,” said Pharaoh, a direct descendant of a family that led the tribe for centuries and who filed the century-old lawsuit to retake land improperly sold for Long Island Rail Road expansion on the East End.
Pharaoh, of Sag Harbor, said the effort isn’t about building a casino or making land claims. “It’s about getting some justice for my ancestors,” he said.
On the virtual meeting with Hochul administration officials was historian John Strong, who has written extensively on Long Island native tribes..
Montauketts for centuries lived across Long Island and in Montauk on Indian Fields on what is now Suffolk County parkland until 1878, when East Hampton Town trustees partitioned the land for sale to developers Arthur and Frank Benson.
Montauketts were evicted a year later, and remained displaced despite numerous legal attempts to reverse the sale and eviction.
"There is now no tribe of Montauk Indians," state Judge Abel Blackmar wrote in his 1910 decision. "It has disintegrated and been absorbed into the mass of citizens."
Strong told Newsday Blackmur's decision was "mainly based on racism.”
The irony, said Strong, was that the judge cited tribal members’ days spent hunting, fishing and farming to justify his characterizations — precisely the type of activities that sustained the tribe for thousands of years before European colonists took over.
Strong also noted the Montauketts were a part of a group of Long Island Indian tribes that signed a 1644 treaty with the United Colonies that carried over to the formation of the United States.
Strong said, in his view, that established the tribe’s federal recognition.
Sandi Brewster-walker, a historian who is executive director of the Montaukett Nation, said Montauketts have been widely recognized by local governments and other Indian tribes.
“Everyone seems to understand and recognize us,” Brewster-walker said. “All we want to do is to close this chapter in our life. This is a trail of tears, and it was illegal.”
Thiele, who attended last week's virtual meeting, said he was "encouraged that the governor’s office met with us," and that the meeting "went well and that we got the opportunity to explain the historic injustice which this bill seeks to correct."
Thiele noted a bipartisan group of 206 state legislators supported the bill, and said, "I’m hopeful the governor will too."