The State Legislature has passed a measure that would establish new protections for unmarked burial sites and ancestral remains, particularly those of Native tribes, which have long sought the protections amid increased land development.
The bills passed the Assembly and the Senate on Wednesday, and now will head to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office. A spokesman for Hochul said she’s reviewing the measure.
New York is one of only three U.S. states that do not have a law codifying protections for such burial sites and remains, said Unkechaug Indian Nation Chief Harry Wallace, a primary advocate for the law.
The proposed law, sponsored by Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), provides 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.
The bill also would empower the Attorney General or other “aggrieved party” to bring actions in state court in response to violations.
The bill takes note of past incidents of “negligent or deliberate failure” to protect such sites, including many on Long Island, primarily in building development. Some of the objects have been looted.
Englebright, who credited Wallace's long advocacy for the law, said what will change if the bill is signed is “a sense of respect for people who literally have been pushed aside in development when their bones were discovered in the past.”
Wallace told Newsday that he plans to "bring as much attention to bear as possible to compel the governor to realize this law is essential." He noted the bill's widespread support in the Legislature and "among the people of New York who don’t want these graves desecrated and don't want these bodies disturbed in a haphazard way."
The law would establish a Native American burial site review committee, with appointed members from each of the state’s Native tribes, plus a state archaeologist and a member appointed by the commissioner of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Builders or “any persons” who discover an unmarked burial site, ancestral remains or “funerary objects” must immediately cease their activity and report their findings to their county coroner or medical examiner. If remains are determined to be more than 50 years old, the examiner must notify the state archaeologist, who will notify the committee, conduct a site inspection and prepare a report.
Removal of remains from a site would be a class A misdemeanor, while destroying or defacing remains or attempting to sell them would be a class E misdemeanor. Failing to report burial site remains would constitute a class B misdemeanor.
Historian Sandi Brewster-walker, who is executive director and government affairs officer of the Montaukett Indian Nation, said the Legislature’s passage was an important “first step” in protecting Native burial sites. If Hochul signs it, Brewster-walker said she hopes county and local governments also pass laws to assure specific sites are protected.
Tela Troge, a member of the Shinnecock Nation's Graves Protection Warrior Society, said the tribe was “hopeful that when Gov. Hochul signs this bill into law that builders and developers will be proactive in preventing the unintentional disturbance of unmarked graves by utilizing easy-to-use technologies like ground penetrating radar” to identify remains.