Montauketts’ Bid for N.Y. State Recognition Is Vetoed for the 5th Time

For years, a Native American tribe from the picturesque East End of Long Island has fought bitterly for formal state recognition, a designation that was stripped away more than a century ago by court decisions that are now widely considered racist.

The New York State Legislature passed a bill four times in a decade to recognize the tribe, the Montaukett Indian Nation, but the legislation was vetoed each time — the first three occasions by Andrew M. Cuomo, and the last by Gov. Kathy Hochul.

The tribe was optimistic it would fare better this year. The bill was written differently, and there were signs that Ms. Hochul might be receptive: She recently named an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, Elizabeth Rule, as the state’s deputy secretary for First Nations.

But on Friday, the Montauketts learned that their battle must continue. Ms. Hochul vetoed the legislation, saying that she did not see sufficient evidence to overturn the century-old ruling that the tribe “no longer functioned as a governmental unit” in New York.

In her veto message, Ms. Hochul largely followed the reasoning that she and Mr. Cuomo had given previously. She said New York was still waiting to receive all the information the state had requested to process an application for official recognition.

“To date, the Montaukett Indian Nation has not provided that required information,” Ms. Hochul wrote.

The rejection was particularly disappointing for the Montauketts because of the way the bill was written. Rather than asking the state to simply grant recognition to the Montauketts, the bill’s sponsors asked for “reinstatement” of it, to emphasize that they once had it.

The Montauketts lost their designation after two court decisions rife with racist reasoning. In 1910, with numerous Montauketts sitting in a courtroom in Riverhead on Long Island, Judge Abel Blackmar sided with a wealthy white family in a yearslong land dispute and declared the tribe extinct — or “disintegrated” as he put it — and wrote off its members as “shiftless” people who served whites and mixed with other races.

A state appeals court upheld the decision two years later, with Justice Joseph Burr ruling that the Montauketts were “impaired by miscegenation, particularly with the Negro race.” The earlier ruling by Judge Blackmar had already given the tribal lands to the Long Island Railroad Company and the heirs of Arthur W. Benson, namesake of Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood.

“This was something that was wrongfully taken away,” said Assemblyman Fred Thiele, the Long Island Democrat who has been pushing the initiative for at least a decade. “The Montauketts shouldn’t have to then go back to square one.”

Ms. Hochul, like Mr. Cuomo before her, has had a rocky relationship with Native groups. She riled the federally recognized Seneca Nation in Western New York by freezing their bank accounts in a dispute over gambling revenues, and then used the money the Senecas eventually handed over to help pay for the Buffalo Bills’ new stadium.

And her veto late last year of a bill designed to make it more difficult for developers to build atop the remains of Indigenous people’s ancestors drew widespread condemnation from Native people all over New York.

But the Legislature tweaked the burial bill this year to address some of Ms. Hochul’s concerns about the rights of private property owners and she signed it, bringing New York into the modern era of Native grave protection.

Her office also pointed out that this summer she became the first sitting New York governor in at least half a century to visit the territory of the Onondaga Nation.

Senator Anthony Palumbo, the Long Island Republican who carried the Montaukett bill in the State Senate, had hoped that Ms. Hochul would give it a “fresh look” now that she was well into her first full term as an elected governor, rather than a designated successor to Mr. Cuomo after his resignation.

“We should be finding a way to give them back the recognition they deserve, instead of trying to find ways to deny them,” Mr. Palumbo said.

The executive director of the tribe, Sandi Brewster-walker, said there are roughly 1,200 Montauketts on their rolls — about 500 on Long Island — who qualify as enrolled citizens. Noting that November is National Native American Heritage Month, Ms. Brewster-walker called the veto a “slap in the face.”

The Montauketts were seeking to become the 10th tribe recognized by the State of New York. Unlike federal recognition, which provides an array of sovereign rights and benefits, the state designation has limited tangible perks.

Mr. Thiele, the Assembly sponsor, says his legislation would have helped provide education funding and health care coverage benefiting members of the tribe.

The current chief of the Montauketts, Robert Pharaoh, said it has been humiliating to repeatedly ask the state to bestow on his tribe what it took away so long ago. And he saw the rejection from Ms. Hochul coming.

“She’ll veto it like the last time,” he texted on Thursday, presaging the veto by a day. “All I have to say.”

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