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State should reverse error and recognize Montauketts

Montaukett Nation Chief and Grand Sachem of Long

Montaukett Nation Chief and Grand Sachem of Long Island Robert Pharaoh holds a photo from 1988 of him and his mother Olive Pharaoh near her grave in Oakland Cemetery. Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

One hundred seven years ago, a judge in a state courtroom in Riverhead ruled that the Montaukett Indian Nation was extinct — putting pen to paper in front of a dozen or so stunned Montauk Indians who were very much alive.

For more than a century, members of the tribe have yearned to get their identity back. It’s time to give it to them.

A bill to grant official state recognition to the Montauketts, introduced by Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), passed unanimously last month in both houses. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo should sign it.

The tribe’s tortured history includes strong evidence that beginning in the late 19th century, many Montauketts were cheated and strong-armed out of their land in East Hampton despite treaty protections. A 2013 bill to create a process to recommend recognition to the State Legislature was vetoed by Cuomo, who said it was too costly and instructed the state Department of State to study the issue. And nothing happened.

So Thiele and LaValle returned to the traditional route prescribed in existing state law and wrote a bill to have the legislature recognize the Montauketts. That standing would make the fading tribe eligible for some state health and education programs, but no land claim or application for casino gambling is attached. Nor is it a pathway to federal recognition, a much more difficult process, and the rights that come with that designation. The tribe’s application for that is still pending.

The bill essentially says: Yes, you do exist, words the 1,000 or so remaining members of the Montaukett Indian Nation have been waiting 107 years to hear.