Volunteers who gathered Saturday in Copiague to clean up Native American burial grounds said they came to honor their ancestors, meet with loved ones not seen since the COVID-19 pandemic and remind others that their culture and traditions live on.
More than 30 volunteers spent a crisp fall day at the historic Green-Bunn Native American burial grounds raking and bagging leaves and cleaning up the headstones that mark the resting place of Native American families and Civil War veterans. Members of the Montaukett Indian Nation led the efforts as part of Native American Heritage Month, with the event being the first of several other burial ground cleanups planned for future dates.
Beverly Brewster, 72, and her husband Arlington Brewster, 73, of Amityville, said they were happy to see young volunteers such as teens and some children at the event.
"We’re glad to have them see what Native American grave sites are all about and how we recognize our ancestors, because they owned the land first," Brewster said, adding that having younger generations learn about such sites kept their traditions alive. "That’s very important."
Of the Bunn family, Vickie Lewis of Amityville, whose family has both Shinnecock and Montaukett roots, said preserving the burial sites was very important for volunteers because of the connection to their Native American heritage.
"We as natives of this land have to preserve it," Lewis said. "We have to let people know that we’re still here. Hidden in plain sight, but we’re here. We just want people to know that."
Myra Squires of Amityville, of the Montaukett nation, has great-grandparents buried at the site, and has family connections to the Brewsters and Bunns. Squires said she loved seeing people on Saturday she hadn’t seen in more than a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This is a small crowd, too, because normally we have more people, but I like how all the families get to gather and pitch in and do what’s needed to be done," Squires said. "The government wrote off the Montauketts and said that we were extinct, but we’re here."
During a special ceremony, several Montaukett tribal elders and leaders received proclamations from State Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford) recognizing their wisdom and contributions to the nation. Brooks said Native Americans’ contributions on Long Island are often overlooked and that that oversight should be corrected.
"It’s great to be here today and see that all over this community, there are burial areas for the people that were here long ago, the people who helped make this community," Brooks said.
Madelyn Miller Jackson, a native of Copiague and member of the Montaukett Indian Nation, led a blessing to close out the ceremony, paying tribute to the warriors and ancestors resting in the sacred ground.
"The blessings of our ancestors are buried here in the ground," Jackson said. "Thank you for your strength, wisdom, guidance and love. May you and may your spirit find peace in the sweet grass and warm winds of freedom forever and always."