With the clock winding down on the state legislative year, Long Island’s native nations and their supporters are making a final push to urge Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign bills that would protect unmarked burial sites and return the Montaukett Indian tribe’s state recognition status.
A Hochul spokesman would only say the governor is reviewing the bills, which the governor has until year's end to sign or veto. No action would result in an effective veto.
Earlier this month, the National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution urging the “immediate enactment of adequate unmarked burial site protection laws” in New York, nothing that both the Unkechaug Nation in Mastic and the Shinnecock Nation in Southampton “have faced difficulties safeguarding unmarked ancestral burials.”
In a separate letter, the United South and Eastern Tribes, an intertribal organization, offered “unequivocal support” for Hochul to approve the bill. “Without these legal protections, our ancestors and their culturally sensitive and significant funeral items have experienced desecration, destruction, removal, and theft without consequence,” the group’s leaders wrote last month.
On Long Island, a group of 36 local activist groups, including the Shinnecock Graves Protection Warrior Society and the Long Island Progressive Coalition, sent a letter to Hochul urging her to sign the Unmarked Burial Site Protection Act.
The bill, sponsored by Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) would provide mechanisms to protect unmarked burial sites and determine their cultural affiliation and final resting place through new reporting requirements and a special state committee to verify findings. Violations of the law, either through failure to report or destroying or selling remains, would be a misdemeanor. New York is one of only three states that doesn’t have such legislation.
The law would protect not only native burial sites, but also those of African Americans and Revolutionary War veterans who were often buried in mass graves, the groups said, adding, “It is right that we do this.”
Harry Wallace, chief of the Unkechaug tribe in Mastic and a longtime advocate for the bill, said Hochul has a “golden opportunity to join the rest of the Union in protecting the sacred ground of our dead.” He said the bill is needed because many burial sites are on land that local tribes “no longer control.”
“The state has to come in and take an interest in this because a lot of our land was taken away from us,” Wallace said.
The Montaukett bill, sponsored by Assemb. Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor), would restore the state recognition the tribe held before a 1910 State Supreme Court ruling in which Justice Abel Blackmar found the tribe to be “disintegrated and absorbed into the mass of citizens,” paving the way for a developer’s theft of tribal lands, historians say.
Tribal rolls provided to the state after former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s several vetoes of Montaukett recognition bills show the tribe has more than 1,200 known members, including more than 400 on Long Island. Historian John Strong has said the 1910 decision was “mainly based on racism.”
Tribal leaders, including chief Robert Pharaoh and executive director Sandi Brewster-walker, have advocated for the return of recognition for decades. “It’s about correcting an injustice,” Pharaoh has said. Brewster-walker in July said: “All we want to do is to close this chapter in our life. This is a trail of tears, and it was illegal.”