The Southampton Town board Tuesday night put off voting on a resolution asking New York State to strengthen laws covering unmarked burial sites, after Councilwoman Christine Scalera raised questions about the proposed legislation.
Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said the proposed law, written by Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) and state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), would “establish state protocols if remains are discovered,” something sought by the Shinnecock Nation for years.
The law would make it a crime to remove bones found during an excavation, and require authorities to be notified.
In the past, American Indian remains have been found across the East End, in locations from a park in Riverhead to a building site on Shelter Island. And no legal protection was afforded to the sites or to the remains, which were voluntarily turned over to the tribe for reburial.
Scalera questioned the meaning of the “absolute stewardship” provision in the proposed law. Fleming said it would give the state control of all remains found in unmarked graves. Scalera said she would get a clarification from LaValle or Englebright before the law comes up for a vote again in two weeks.
The town is seeking a state law, rather than simply passing a local law, because the state has the power to require the Suffolk County medical examiner to examine remains and determine whether they are human, something no town has the legal authority to do.
Members of the Shinnecock Nation once hunted across the South Fork, and unmarked burial sites have been found for decades. Creating a map to show sensitive areas would be part of the state legislation.
Beverly Jensen, director of communications for the Shinnecock Nation, said the delay in the vote wouldn’t be significant because no state vote on the proposed legislation will take place until sometime next year. “We would like to get it done,” she said. “We are a patient people.”
Above: Southampton Town Hall