In a courtroom in Riverhead in 1910, a state Supreme Court judge looked out into a room full of men and women of Montaukite and said a lot, saying he didn’t see them.
Judge Abel Blackmar said in a decidedly racist ruling that the Montauquette people had been “extinct” and that over time they had “disintegrated” and “their bloodlines had become so mixed so much so that many of their Indian features were obliterated”.
His ruling also held that the Montaukites “had no internal government, and lived a life of idleness, hunting, fishing, farming in ‘Indian fashion’…and often absent for long periods of time, doing menial jobs for the whites. “
As Blackmar writes, Wyandank v. Benson erased the state’s recognition of the Montaukite nation. The Montauketts became invisible because they were “extinct” and they had no valid claim to the land where they had lived and buried their dead for thousands of years. What Blackmar did was a theft of a people’s ancient history, a judicially sanctioned theft.
Last week, the New York State Legislature took the bold step of overturning that shameful decision. With the support of State Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) and Assemblyman Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor), both chambers unanimously passed a bill to restore state recognition to the Montauquet Nation.
Now wait for Governor Kathy Hochul to act. She has vetoed similar bills before, as did her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo. Of course, they have reasons to justify their veto. We urge the Governor to sign this bill into law.
Is there any valid legal reason for her not to sign the bill? It’s hard to imagine what it is, if anything. It’s also hard to imagine anyone else in America having to legitimately argue their existence.
In a text message after the vote, Mr Palumbo said he was very proud of the bill, which he said passed unanimously. He sums up his feelings this way: “Occasionally we feel good about the business.”
He is right. For the most part, he and Mr. Thiele pay homage to their elected offices and the rich history of East Long Island.
The overall lesson of this vote is that history matters. We mean real history, not politically filtered history. In a democratic society based on truth, righting wrong is very important. Avoiding the truth weakens all the connective tissue that underpins society.
What happened at South Fork – the confiscation of land on Shinnecock Hills, now occupied by some of the most exclusive country clubs in the world, the removal of the Montauk people from Montauk Point and their relocation to the East Hampton community, ironically Is called Freetown – is a real history of the issue.
In many ways, a similar expropriation took place in the North Fork. In the 1680s, a reservation called Corchaug Pond was established to preserve the last vestiges of the Southold Aboriginal people. Later when the Europeans wanted that land, it was taken from them.
In the Cutchogue cemetery, there is the tombstone of David Hannibal, who was born in 1856 and died in 1936. He is a descendant of the Montaukite people. He worked on farms and people’s gardens, and at the end of his life lived in a shed on the neck of the ship. He may well have been in court to hear Judge Blackmar tell him he didn’t exist that day in 1910.
There should be a monument on the North Fork honoring those who lived here before the Europeans arrived and convincing them to put their stamp on the legal act that forced them off their land.
In a small but important way, the passage of this bill—whether the governor signs it or not—will help us reconnect with our authentic past.
“We have a very strong tradition on Long Island, and with this bill, we have a brighter future,” said Sandy Brewsterwalker, executive director of Montaukite Nation. “David [Hannibal] Now has a place in our history. He is no longer invisible. “