UPDATE – New Bill Submitted to State Legislature
5/28/14 – After months of discussion with the Montaukett recognition team, Senator LaValle and Assemblyman Theile agreed to co-sponsor a new bill which would restore the Montaukett as a New York-State recognized Indian tribe. This bill is currently being voted on by the NY State Senate and Asssembly. The new legislation will create a new article in New York Indian Law entitled Article 11, The Montaukett Indians. It will follow Article 9, Shinnecock Indian Nation and Article 10, Unkechaug Indian Nation. Upon passage of this bill, and barring another a veto by Gov. Cuomo, the Montaukett will be restored as a New York State Indian Tribe.
104 years ago, New York State Supreme Court Judge Abel Blackmar ruled in the case, Pharaoh v. Benson that the Montaukett Indian Nation was “extinct.” This has stood as New York State law since that time. Many legal scholars and historians have issued opinions that the Blackmar ruling was deficient on several fronts. In a recent lawsuit involving two Montauk Point motels, the judge stated that the Blackmar decision, 1910 was “questionable.” The Montaukett Indian Nation is rightfully questioning the Blackmar ruling, which was essentially judicial genocide. The last paragraph of Blackmar’s ruling stated:
“…Prior to the purchase of the Indian rights by Mr. Benson, there were a number of Montauk Indians in the enjoyment of tribal rights in Indian Field and a sufficient tribal organization to preserve to them those rights. There is now no tribe of Montauk Indians. It has disintegrated and been absorbed into the mass of citizens. If I may use the expression, the tribe has been dying for many years. The separation and scattering of the members, due to the purchase by Mr. Benson, gave it the final death blow. But I hold that the purchase was a lawful act, and there is no consideration of justice which makes me loath to find that there is no longer a tribe of Montauk Indians. As the Indians are wards of the state, and as this action was authorized by an enabling act, I do not think that costs should be imposed on the plaintiff…”
Firstly, the Pharaoh v. Benson lawsuit was not about whether the Montauk Tribe of Indians (as the nation was called at the time) existed or not. Wyandank Pharaoh as an individual filed suit to challenge the legality of the sale of Montaukett territory by the Easthampton Trustees to Arthur Benson and the Benson estate’s subsequent sale of a large parcel to the Long Island Railroad. A previous court had already ruled that the Montauk Tribe of Indians had no legal standing to file suit in NY Courts. The lawsuit was not Montauk Tribe of Indians v. Benson, so why did Judge Abel Blackmar choose to interject “There is now no tribe of Montauk Indians” into his ruling since the existence of the Montaukett as an Indian tribe was not the focus of the lawsuit?
Another questionable factor is whether Judge Blackmar even had the judicial authority to declare the Montaukett “disintegrated.” The federal government acknowledged the Montaukett as an Indian tribe as late as 1906. The Montaukett is listed as an Indian Tribe in The Handbook of Northest Indians, VOl. 15 1906 published by the Smithsonian – a federal institution. In 1910, the federal government had supreme jurisdiction over Indian lands, allotments, alienation, and inheritance. Therefore, it can be argued that Judge Blackmar overstepped his bounds when he declared the death of the Montaukett as a unique people and culture. His rationale was that Benson’s agents “scattered and separated” the Montaukett still living on Indian Field, forcing them to be “…absorbed into the mass of citizens…” It seems that Blackmar believed that if a family was forced out of their home, scattered and separated, that such a family was thereby made extinct. How could this obvious injustice stand for over a century?
Overview of the New York State Tribal Restoration Effort
Five years ago Chief Pharaoh authorized a massive effort to restore the status of the Montaukett Indians as a historic New York State Native American Indian nation. The first step was to modernize and expand the tribal membership records, which were incomplete and did not definitively meet the standards stipulated for either federal or NY state recognition. Chief Pharaoh stated that our most important members are the youngsters, because the future of the nation will be in their hands. Thanks to the ungoing registration effort, hundreds of young Montaukett children will now realize the benefits of being a registered member. In fact, all who now hold MIN photo membership cards will be eligible for benefits because of the efforts of the registration team. We sincerely hope that those who for one reason or another ignored the registration drive over the last four years now consider submitting their applications.
Due to the effort to restore the rights of the Montaukett as an historical New York State Indian Nation, Senator LaValle and Assemblyman Thiele agreed to assist the nation and jointly crafted a bill to create a procedure for the restoration of the Montaukett Nation. On June 13 2013, the New York State Assembly passed the 2013 Montaukett Act. On June 18 2013, the New York Senate passed the 2013 Montaukett act. The passage of this bill by the NY State legislature was overwhelming. It passed unanimously in the Senate with only six members of the NYS Assembly in opposition. However, this was not enough to deliver justice to the Montaukett people.
Gov. Cuomo’s Veto
In spite of the overwhelming support of the entire NY State legislative body, Governor Cuomo decided to veto this bill. His rationale was that New York State could not fairly evaluate the Montaukett using the current federal criteria. We understood all along that the state did not have the expertise nor did it have the budgetary flexibility to take on this complex and convoluted procedure. Had New York State attempted to apply federal guidelines, this could have led to unpredictable delays, legal challenges, etc. – none of which would be desirable outcomes from the Montaukett point of view. Everyone knows that there is a huge national controversy concerning the existing federal criteria. Many national Native American Indian organizations are opposing the BIA rules and these rules are very much in flux. In any case, Governor Cuomo has decided to direct the NYS Secretary of State to evaluate the case for Montaukett recognition. This is an acceptable alternative, which Chief Pharaoh, Senator LaValle and Assemblyman Thiele were all comfortable with.
Here is the full text of Governor Cuomo’s veto. Please pay particular attention to the last paragraph. All who read the original bill should recognize that this veto achieves the same result as the recognition bill with the added bonus of eliminating the biggest hurdle to recognition – MEETING THE FEDERAL CRITERIA
NY tribal restoration would open up many new avenues for the Montaukett Indian Nation to pursue. It would substantially increase the likelihood of eventual federal recognition and makes some NY and federal benefits immediately available to registered members. According to his veto, the governor directed the NY Secretary of State to evaluate Montaukett recognition without having to apply federal guidelines. Chief Pharaoh is confident that New York Secretary of State Cesar A. Perales is a decent man who will fairly evaluate our situation and ultimately do the right thing which will finally put an end to this century-old debacle.
Finally, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of restoring the tribe’s status is the new sense of Montaukett unity and committment that permeates across the entire country. This undoubtedly makes our ancestors smile and it will be a precious gift to our children and grand-children. Let us all be wary of squandering this for trivial or selfish reasons. United we stand, divided we fall. The choice should be obvious.