Unkechaug Nation chief Harry Wallace places tobacco on the grave...

Unkechaug Nation chief Harry Wallace places tobacco on the grave marker of his ancestors during a ceremonial unveiling of a restored Native American burial ground in 2018. Credit: Johnny Milano

Consider the following not-uncommon Long Island scenario: In the process of new construction, developers find an unmarked burial site on private land, perhaps one holding Native American remains from hundreds of years ago. What happens next?

Federal law deals with this type of solemn and thorny issue on federal or tribal lands, according to the Washington College of Law State Burial Laws Project, but when it happens on private or state-owned land, state laws govern. Many states have significant statutes on the books addressing the concern. New York, however, is far behind.

That’s unacceptable in a state where Native American history and current traditions are so rich and consequential, from the Iroquois and Lenape to the Shinnecocks, Unkechaug, and Montauketts close to home.

On Long Island, burial sites can be particularly threatened because they are often located on shorelines or high ground. "And of course, as we know, on Long Island, that's the primary area for development," Harry Wallace, chief of the Unkechaug Indian Nation, told the editorial board.

Local law and leaders can work to protect these sites in various ways, through purchases or establishing fair rules for property owners. Southampton Town has taken some important steps on this front with local Shinnecock sites, though not all tribal members are fully satisfied. But it does not make sense to handle this issue with a patchwork of laws that rely on the funds or resources of the smallest units of government.

Instead, a state law is needed. For years, Setauket Assemb. Steven Englebright has promoted a plan called the Unmarked Burial Site Protection Act which would establish some procedures such as creating a review committee, requiring the reporting of human remains to the local coroner, and outlining roles for the state archaeologist as well as the lineal descendants or culturally affiliated group.

This is an old issue, with roots in decades of disrespect to Native American sites, including looting and destruction. And it is a pressing issue today, as Long Island becomes more developed and more graves are threatened, and as our culture becomes more aware of the degradation done by so many newcomers to Native American lives over America’s long history.

Nassau and Suffolk counties are home to plenty of approval processes that can slow construction, and some builders may fear new requirements. But reasonable common ground can be found.

Wallace of the Unkechaug nation notes that "all of us need a place to live" and says he’s not anti-development. But he is "opposed to any development that is done at the expense of digging up bodies."

Other states have put mechanisms in place to protect these sites. In this upcoming legislative session, New York must as well.

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.