Montaukett tribe’s bid for NY recognition denied. ‘That’s a slap in the face.’

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By Dan Sears

A leader of the Montaukett, Native American people who once lived in great numbers on the East End of Long Island, is criticizing Gov. Kathy Hochul’s veto of legislation that would have granted the tribe state recognition.

Sandi Brewster-walker, the tribe’s executive director, said this week the governor’s decision was “cruel and racist.”

Brewster-walker said the timing of the veto — during Native American History Month — made it “a slap in the face.”

In a veto message Friday, the governor said the tribe failed to submit sufficient evidence to warrant overturning a more than century-old court ruling that found the tribe “no longer functioned as a governmental unit” in New York.

Her decision marked another in a string of defeats by the tribe to recover what it lost in a 1910 State Supreme Court ruling that was later affirmed by a state appellate court. Both rulings have been decried by the tribe and others for their racist undertone.

The lower court ruling that stripped the tribe of state recognition described the Montaukett as “disintegrated” and “shiftless.” The affirming appellate court ruling said the tribe had been “impaired by miscegenation, particularly with the Negro race.”

Hochul said in her veto letter that the tribe had not provided necessary information required in the state’s tribal recognition process, writing, “therefore, I am constrained to veto this bill.” It marked the second time that Hochul had opposed the tribe’s bid to restore its recognition. Her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, thrice vetoed bills that aimed to do the same.

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Hochul’s office did not immediately respond to a request seeking detail on what information was still outstanding. In her 2022 veto message, Hochul noted similarities between the federal and state government frameworks for recognizing tribes and stated, “New York has historically only recognized Tribes and Nations that have had a continuous government-to-government relationship with New York since this State was established.”

The letter added: “Recognition requires the determination that a sovereign nation, with its own functioning government, has continually existed, and as such, requires due diligence on the part of the State to collect and analyze evidence to ensure that any entity requesting recognition is, in fact a government that has continued in existence over the past centuries.”

Greg Werkheiser, an attorney for the tribe in its efforts to receive state recognition, said the tribe has provided ample information that surpasses the minimum requirements. As proof, he pointed to the five separate times the Legislature has passed the bill seeking recognition for the tribe.

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The material benefits of state recognition are limited compared to federal recognition, which entitles tribes to certain benefits, services and protections as sovereign nations. But Werkheiser and Brewster-walker said acknowledgement from the state remains important.

“It’s a matter of dignity, and it’s a matter of correcting the historic record,” said Werkheiser, a founding partner of the law firm Culture Heritage Partners, which focuses on Indigenous Peoples’ rights.

Assemblymember Fred W. Thiele Jr., a Democrat from Sag Harbor and the bill’s sponsor, called the court case “one of the most racist decisions in the history of New York jurisprudence.”

“An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it,” he said in a statement. “This week Governor Hochul refused to correct previous errors by New York State government regarding the Montauketts and made a regrettable mistake by vetoing the Montaukett legislation.”

New York has nine state-recognized tribal nations, according to the Office of Indian Nation Affairs. Eight of those tribes are also recognized by the federal government. Brewster-walker says the Montaukett tribe has about 1,200 members across the country, about half of whom reside in Long Island.

When Brewster-walker first learned of Hochul’s veto, she said, “I personally felt like the governor put a knife in my soul and spirit.”

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She added: “I could feel the sharp pain as well as hear the loud and hard cries of my ancestors and their descendants from the East End of Long Island to the West End, who had been here thousands of years before the European settlers and traders.”

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