The indignities visited for centuries upon North America’s indigenous peoples are well-known, but far too slowly addressed.
All the more reason to confront them.
That’s why Pope Francis was right to apologize and “humbly beg forgiveness” last week for the decades of destruction wrought by church-run residential schools on indigenous peoples in Canada.
And it’s why it’s time for Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign legislation that would restore state recognition and acknowledgment of the Montaukett Indian Nation right here.
The Montauketts’ ancestors historically lived in territory stretching from Orient Point and Montauk to Hempstead and Wantagh, and they were here to welcome Long Island’s early settlers, says Sandi Brewster-walker, executive director for the Montaukett Indian Nation. Their history took a turn in 1910, when their very acknowledgment was removed in a state court case in which they were declared to be extinct.
Among the indignities of this questionable decision was that many Montaukett Indians were in the courtroom that day.
The decision was the culmination of a typically disastrous mix of racism, greed for land, the march of railroads’ progress, and political power. All of it was to the Montauketts’ detriment. While other neighboring groups such as the Shinnecock and Poospatuck enjoyed state recognition of their nations, the Montauketts have been at a loss.
Today, there are about 1,200 Montauketts across the country and around 400 on Long Island, says Brewster-walker, who argues that they have retained their identities despite the century-old shame: “We have always known since we could talk that we're Montaukett Indians."
Members of their community have spent years lobbying for state and federal recognition. The federal side comes with real assistance, and could help begin the path toward a casino, but that doesn’t appear to be the Montauketts’ purpose here. Regardless, the federal process is laborious, but the state version should not be so. Suffolk County lawmakers including Assemb. Fred Thiele have tried multiple times to help the Montauketts get their state recognition back via legislation. Those efforts were blocked by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, without much of a rationale beyond rhetoric about process.
It’s time for this issue to be settled. The Montaukett nation believes it has all necessary records and is prepared to give them to New York officials, says Brewster-walker, who adds that they have already provided many documents including tribal rolls.
There are some modest benefits, real and concrete, to state recognition for the nation, including health care access. But most important is righting a very old wrong, and taking one more step toward understanding the complex history of the land on which we live.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.