Members of the Montaukett Indian Nation shared their stories and traditions Saturday at a dedication ceremony for a memorial rock to honor indigenous and enslaved people on the burial ground at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Oakdale.
Tribal members danced for guests of the Oakdale Historical Society and told of the clusters of Native Americans who once lived near the Connetquot River. Then the roughly two dozen in attendance participated in a blessing ceremony, read by Mandy Miller Jackson of Copiague, that recognized the Montauketts' connection with nature.
At the end of the ceremony, most of the guests placed flowers atop the rock, which since earlier this year has been marked with a plaque in remembrance of “Native Americans, freed men, servants, slaves and others whose graves have been lost to time.”
“We are all one people,” Montaukett executive director Sandi Brewster-walker said of Long Island’s native people. “The Island was ours.”
The Montaukett Indian Nation once spanned from Orient Point and Montauk to Seaford and Hempstead, she said. Today, about 400 members still live on Long Island.
In Islip Town, Brewster-walker has traced the Montaukett Bunn family back to 1600. Each of the six Montauketts who took part in Saturday's dedication are related to the Bunns.
Brewster-walker said her research showed Islip’s natives were later enslaved and a court case in 1910 declared them extinct. There is now a push to get Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign legislation that would restore state recognition and acknowledgment of the Montaukett Indian Nation before the end of the year.
Church administrator Denise Conte, who also serves as vice president of the historical society, said indigenous and enslaved people were buried on the eastern edge of the Montauk Highway property, which once stretched to Locust Avenue. The rock abuts fencing in the northeastern corner of the church grounds, beyond which housing has been erected above the unmarked burial sites.
“The memorial rock is now a beautiful meditation space,” Conte told guests during the dedication. “It really calls out the people who are sometimes minimized or forgotten.”
While the memorial rock was planted in April, the dedication was held this week to mark Indigenous Peoples Day.
The church, which maintains an active congregation and is the oldest in Islip Town, dates to 1765. Marked graves on the site span from the late 18th century to the early 1900s. In 1994, the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Conte hopes the church, which has hosted the historical society since the closure of Dowling College, can help the Montauketts receive the recognition they are seeking.
“We are a Christian Episcopal church, but we are very spiritual people,” she said.
Brewster-walker called it a “wonderful ceremony.”
“We have never lost our culture and we never lost our history,” she said.
Conte hopes the historical society can make celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day an annual tradition.