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Native American leaders on Long Island seek unmarked burial sites law

Harry B. Wallace, chief of the Unkechaug Indian

Harry B. Wallace, chief of the Unkechaug Indian Nation in Mastic, calls for regulation on the handling of human remains found at construction sites. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Native American leaders on Long Island advocated for an unmarked burial sites law, which would regulate the handling of human remains found at construction sites, and more broadly spoke of "horrific" treatment of Native American remains in many capacities, prompting, they said, the need for more sensitivity and education.

"I’ve spent quite a bit of time dealing with the repatriation of human remains in Suffolk and Nassau counties," said Harry B. Wallace, chief of the Unkechaug Indian Nation, whose Poospatuck Reservation is in Mastic. He and others spoke during a virtual roundtable discussion Thursday night sponsored by state Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford) and the Montaukett Indian Nation.

During the program, called "Connecting the Dots: Archaeology, Unmarked Burial Sites & Land Acknowledgment Statements," which attracted more than 60 people on Zoom, Wallace said: "In the past two years, we have ... reburied over 150 human remains that have been found in museums" across the region.

Wallace said remains had been stored in boxes and "cloth bags and stacked up on shelves and [in] basements and attics. It’s been a horrific experience, and we have done our best to restore our ancestors and our relatives back to the earth" with dignity.

Lance Gumbs, tribal ambassador for the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Southampton and a Northeast region representative to the National Congress of American Indians, also called for New York to pass an unmarked burial law. New York is one of only three states without one, according to Wallace.

"New York is abysmal" in its lack of protections for unmarked burial sites, Gumbs said.

The proposed legislation would do three things, Wallace said.

"It establishes a Native American burial site review committee, [with] a representative from all [American Indian] nations in New York and a designee from the New York Archaeological Council and a forensic anthropologist," he said.

Second, he continued, "When there is an inadvertent discovery [of remains], all construction will stop until the site is determined to be sacred or sensitive, or whatever determinations are made."

"We are not reinventing the wheel," he added, citing laws in other states.

Finally, the proposed law would enable American Indian nations, as well as individuals, to seek an injunction against violators, and violators could face a misdemeanor penalty, though Wallace said he supported making it a felony.

Gumbs cited instances of remains being handled insensitively. He recalled one property owner who, when informed of the presence of human remains, said he would just pour concrete over it. Gumbs said such response speaks to the education that is needed.

Brooks said he will look into exploring the proposed legislation Wallace and Gumbs advocated.

He added: "Sometimes, when we think of American history, we start with the Pilgrims or something and we forget that there were people here long before. ... We have a great heritage that these Native Americans have. We would do well to learn more about our history [and] of their contributions."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the title of Harry B. Wallace, who is the current chief of the Unkechaug Indian Nation.

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