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Shinnecock recognition sparks Montauketts' hopes

NO ONE more than Robert Pharaoh of Sag Harbor wants to see the fortunes of the disparate Montaukett tribe of Indians lifted like the new hopes of the nearby Shinnecock Indian Nation.

For centuries, Montauketts have been by beset by land grabs, evictions, Colonial disease and a devastating 1910 state-court ruling that declared the tribe nonexistent. All told, the actions have uprooted and scattered a once-dominant Long Island tribe far from the Montauk home it had known since the end of the Ice Age.

And yet, Pharaoh will have no part of the efforts of a faction of the tribe seeking to join in the recently approved federal recognition claim of the Shinnecocks. In December, that faction, led by Robert "Red Feather" Stevenson of Cape May, N.J., sent a letter to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs seeking to have a 1998 Montaukett claim for federal recognition merged with the Shinnecocks' application. In January, the bureau rejected the request.

While it's unclear what happens next, the effort has deepened a schism within the Montaukett community, where three men lay claim to the title of chief and members hold out hope for financial and social benefits that come with recognition.

For Pharaoh, who filed the first Montauk claim for recognition in 1995, the long-awaited hope for federal recognition is something the tribe must do on its own, and for its own purposes. He has a modest vision for a Montaukett museum, long house and burial ground on land the tribe once thrived on, in what is now Theodore Roosevelt County Park in Montauk. He says he is not interested in the casino ambitions of the Montaukett faction, which he called "pretenders."

On the other side, the Rev. Kenneth Nelson, who serves on the executive council of the Montaukett group seeking status with the Shinnecocks, pointed to a 1663 treaty between the Shinnecocks and Montauketts that he said viewed Long Island Indians as a "single federation." Under that treaty, he said, "we feel if one group is recognized, all groups should be recognized."

No fight with Shinnecocks

Nelson insisted that his group "isn't fighting against the Shinnecocks. We want to work with them." The Montauketts, he said, are equally deserving of the educational, housing and casino rights that come with recognition - just like the Shinnecocks. "We're all the same group," he said.

The treaty, still on file in Southampton Town records, says the Shinnecocks owe allegiance to the then-Montaukett leader, and her heirs.

Nelson noted that the bureau granted his faction "interested party" status in the Shinnecock proceedings, and he has reached out to the tribe. "We need to talk to the Shinnecocks so we can be on the same page," he said.

But one expert cast doubt on the treaty's modern application, saying its signers may have been inspired or even coerced by Colonial land owners. "The Colonial document and anthropological models do not support their claim that the Montauketts actually had control over the Shinnecock at any time," said John Strong, a historian specializing in native Long Island tribes. "I had always read it as an example of the English imposing their structures on the Indian groups of Long Island, hardly anything that would be taken seriously."

Stevenson's interpretation of the 1663 treaty has prompted outrage among at least one former leader of the Shinnecocks.

"To me it was a slap in the face," said Lance Gumbs, a former Shinnecock tribal chairman who is Northeast regional vice president for the National Congress of American Indians. "We spent 31 years putting a petition together, and now they want to jump on the bandwagon."

Pharaoh said he still intends to pursue his separate tribal-recognition application independent of the others. And while understanding of the Shinnecock's desire for a casino, he has no such ambitions for the Montauk tribe.

Casino not an issue

"I am not interested in a casino," he said. Pharaoh said he represents 600 Montaukett members, some of whom are also determined to see a reversal of a 1910 State Supreme Court ruling following disputed land claims that said the Montaukett tribe no longer existed.

Another Long Island faction of Montauketts was once affiliated with the Stevenson group but is no longer. Robert Cooper, who said he is chief of that group, criticized the efforts of the Stevenson faction as "looking for an easy way out."

Cooper said he is working toward state recognition for the Montauketts as a prelude to federal recognition. Three years ago, Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) sponsored legislation in the Assembly, but it has not advanced.

Long Island tribes

Montauk Indian Nation

Chief: Robert Pharaoh,changed, per story/yr Sag Harbor

Objective: Create Indian museum, long house, burial ground on reclaimed land in Montauk

Federal recognition petition: 1995.

2.Montaukett Tribe of Long Island, N.Y.

Chief: Robert Cooper, East Hampton

Goal: Clean-energy initiatives

Federal recognition petition: filed 1998.

3.Montaukett Tribe of Long Island, N.Y.cq? this tribe has same name is tribe 2?/yr yes, cqth

Chief: Robert Red Feather Stevenson, Cape May, N.J.

Goal: Join with Shinnecock recognition efforts, reclaim land, possibly open casino.

Federal recognition petition: 1998.

The treaty in question

1663 Montaukett-Shinnecock Treaty Establishes:

That Sunk squa Quashawam, then-leader of the Montauketts, is the "supreme" of the Shinnecocks, who must "pay her honor."

The Shinnecocks shall "maintain" her in "all prerogatives" to their power.

That her Montaukett heirs also be granted this same allegiance.

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