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Montauketts move to create new governing structure

This group photo from 1924 shows representatives of

This group photo from 1924 shows representatives of the Montaukett Tribe. Credit: Cooper Family

Members of the Montaukett Indian Nation say they are preparing to institute a new governing structure for the widely dispersed tribe as they await Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s signature on a bill that would restore their state recognition.

Cuomo’s office said this month it was reviewing legislation passed unanimously in the Assembly and Senate in June that would grant the tribe state recognition outright. The legislation goes beyond a 2013 bill that would have instituted a new state review process for recognition. That bill was vetoed by Cuomo, whose administration vowed to explore the process, with little progress.

The tribe, whose bloodright members number more than 1,000, primarily along the East Coast, cheered passage of the recognition bill, sponsored by Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).

“We are very optimistic,” said tribal member Donna Harris-Bryant of Coram, noting that other tribes have written to Cuomo in support of Montaukett’s recognition. “I’m hopeful the governor is going to do the right thing.”

Leila “Loving Spirit” O’Neal, chairwoman of the tribe’s interim governing committee and longtime Clan Mother of the tribe, said in a note to state lawmakers that she was in contact with “hundreds of Montauketts” preparing to “transition to a democratic political structure.”

The legislation itself sets the structure for the government, with a chief or sachem, three tribal trustees and a tribal secretary elected to one year terms by majority vote by blood right members at an election to be held the first Tuesday each April.

“I can say with confidence that admiration and support for the legislative process that has led us to the doorstep of justice is in the hearts of all Montauketts,” O’Neal wrote. “We speak in one voice when we affirm that the Great Spirit has heard our prayers and restoration of our nation is just around the corner.”

Tribal chief Robert Pharaoh said, “I’m very encouraged and hopeful it will be signed, and that our many years of being denied our identity will be ended.”

The Montauketts trace the loss of their state recognition to a 1910 state court ruling in a suit brought by tribal leaders seeking to undo the purchase of thousands of acres of their tribal land at Indian Fields in Montauk Point by developer Arthur Benson. Judge Abel Blackmar ruled the purchase was “a lawful act,” one which he characterized as the “final death blow,” for the tribe. (A 1994 court case ruled Blackmar’s decision of “questionable propriety.”)

“There is now no tribe of Montauk Indians,” Blackmar wrote. “It has disintegrated and been absorbed into the mass of citizens.”

One federal official at the time saw it differently.

In a July 7, 1906, memorandum filed as part of the tribe’s court case, C.F. Larrabee, acting commissioner of Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior, wrote that the Montauketts were “an existing Indian tribe” with land rights in Montauk, and that the Bensons and the Long Island Rail Road, among others, were “forever” restrained from taking the tribal land.

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