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Montaukett Indians say state is ignoring their attempt to restore recognition

Robert Pharaoh, chief of the Montaukett Indian Nation,

Robert Pharaoh, chief of the Montaukett Indian Nation, at Havens Beach in Sag Harbor, Dec. 10, 2014. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

The Montaukett Indian Nation is losing patience in its effort to restore its state recognition more than a year after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vetoed legislation that would have cleared the way for the process, a tribal leader said.

Montaukett chief Robert Pharaoh last week said he hasn't heard from the state since receiving an initial letter from Secretary of State Cesar A. Perales in March. The letter says the state may contact Pharaoh as part of research into a "legal framework" to recognize the tribe at an unspecified time.

Since then, there's been no communication at all, Pharaoh said, adding that he's "disappointed but not surprised. We've been disappointed by the last hundred years by the justice system."

State Department spokesman Laz Benitez said the agency was preparing a "thorough evaluation of the pertinent facts to determine whether recognition of the Montaukett Indians is warranted." The work, he said, "takes time," but the agency expects to begin requesting information from stakeholders "within the next few months."

The tribe and factions have worked for decades to undo the devastating impact of a 1910 State Court decision that declared the tribe "disintegrated." Tribal members have pushed to change state law, filed paperwork for federal recognition, and tallied a membership roster of more than 1,000 members. Recognition would provide health and other state benefits, and secure a parcel for a research and cultural center in Montauk, Pharaoh said.

In June 2013, a bill to regain the tribe's state by Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) passed in the legislature with widespread support, including unanimous passage in the Senate. But Cuomo vetoed the bill three months later, saying the state "does not have the extensive resources to conduct such an investigation" of recognition using federal standards, as the law sought.

According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, the state held only a single meeting with an outside expert. The state declined to provide information about the April meeting.

"Recognizing an Indian tribe is a decision that can have a significant impact on the state and community in which the tribe would have governmental jurisdiction," Robert C. Batson of Albany Law School's Government Law Center wrote in an email to Newsday, stressing the view was his own and not the state's.

"An Indian tribe governs its territory to the exclusion of the town or other municipality in which it is located, and its property is exempt from all real property taxes," he said.

Among the "essential" considerations is whether the Montauketts can produce a treaty with the United States or a Colonial-era deed that "demonstrates they held land as an Indian tribe," Batson said.

Montauketts lived on Indian Fields on what is now county parkland in Montauk until 1878, according to a tribal document, 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.

Batson said the state would "need to know the location of the territory they [the Montauketts] intend to govern and the parcels within the territory . . . "

Pharaoh has said the tribe is not seeking land for anything other than a tribal museum, cultural and research center.

In a letter to the State Department in March, Pharaoh said the tribe's chief aim was to undo the 1910 decision by state Supreme Court Judge Abel Blackmar, who wrote, "There is now no tribe of Montauk Indians. It has disintegrated and been absorbed into the mass of citizens."

In his letter to the state, Pharaoh said Montaukett tribal members consider Blackmar's decision "judicial genocide upon the tribe," and called the ruling "arbitrary, prejudiced, a violation of civil rights and clearly biased toward affirming the acquisition of Montaukett territory by the Benson estate and the Long Island Rail Road."

" . . . We do not envision any material gain" from state recognition, Pharaoh wrote. "Our motive is to simply restore the former status of the Montaukett people to honor our ancestors and instill a sense of pride in our present and future generations." The state never responded to the letter, Pharaoh said.

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