The Democrats and Republicans in Albany voted together on this one.
It's time for the governor to do the same.
With political gridlock paralyzing the nation worse than Montauk Highway on a Friday evening in July, it was refreshing last week to see that the bipartisan Montaukett Recognition Bill – sponsored by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele and State Senator Ken LaValle -- unanimously passed the NYS Assembly and Senate.
The last time we saw legislators display this kind of unity was for a pay raise.
On July 19, Thiele and LaValle sent a letter urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign their bill that would once again recognize the Montauketts as a thriving Native American Indian nation on Eastern Long Island after being ruled "extinct" in 1909 by Judge Abel Blackmar.
In The Montauketts, John Strong's definitive book on this Indian nation, he details how in that shameful case brought by member of the Montauketts, lawyers for the defense claimed that the tribe's bloodline had been diluted via mixed marriages with "inferior races." Blackmar himself, in declaring the tribe extinct, concluded that the Montauketts "had no internal government and they live a shiftless life of hunting, fishing, and cultivating land, often leaving Montauk for long periods of work in menial capacity for whites."
To rectify this historical outrage, Thiele and LaValle steered a similar Montaukett Recognition Bill through the legislature in 2013 that was vetoed by Cuomo, not because the governor objected in principle but because the law would require an expensive and lengthy review by the Feds, with a price tag the state could not afford.
However, Cuomo said he would direct the NY Dept. of State to study whether Montaukett recognition was warranted, as it has been for the nations or tribes of the Tuscarora, Oneida, and Onondaga, along with the Seneca, Cayuga, Tonawanda, Poospatuck, and Shinnecock.
It has been four years since Cuomo's veto and Thiele and LaValle say no such study has been done. So they unanimously moved this new Montaukett Recognition Bill through the legislature.
"The court's misdeed declaring that the Montauketts no longer exist has been perpetuated for over a century, despite the fact that the members of this sovereign Indian nation continue to live in our community, maintain their culture, and govern themselves," Thiele and LaValle wrote to Cuomo.
I reached out to Cuomo's office for comment but received no response.
The Montauketts decline began in 1879 when 10,000 acres of Montauk was "purchased" for $151,000 – 10 percent down -- by a slippery city slicker named Arthur. W. Benson, owner of Brooklyn Gas and Light, and founder of the neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. He partnered with an odious bigot named Austin Corbin, who built railroads in Brooklyn leading to his grand hotels in Coney Island. Corbin was also the president of the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews, banning Jews – and Chinese -- from his hotels (one named, ironically, The Oriental) and railroads. "If America is a free country why can't we be free of the Jews," he asked a Brooklyn Eagle reporter. He called Jews "a detestable and vulgar people."
At one of Corbin's ASSJ meetings, it was resolved, "we pledge ourselves to spare no effort to remand them [Jews] to the condition that they were in in the Middle Ages, or to exterminate them utterly."
Anyway, Corbin also became the first president of the Long Island Rail Road and partnered with his pal Benson to swindle the Montauketts out of their land in order to lay LIRR tracks from Bridgehampton to Montauk, where Corbin intended to build a trans-Atlantic passenger ship terminal and grand resorts like the ones in Coney Island. If Corbin didn't want Jews or Chinese in his hotels or on his railroad we can only imagine his opinion of the Montauketts whose lawsuits delayed the building of his LIRR.
Corbin died in a carriage accident in 1896 – yay, carriage! -- but the Montauketts kept fighting Benson in court.
When Judge Abel Blackmar made his ruling in Pharoah v. Benson, the Montauketts were officially ruled "extinct" even as over a hundred Montauketts crowded the courtroom.
This was like a judge in Manhattan declaring the Irish extinct, with the Fighting 69th in the courtroom, because they had comingled with Italians.
Clearly Blackmar's ruling was racist, absurd on its face, and probably motivated by the politics of progress -- synonymous in Brooklyn with bribery.
"This issue has continued to be relevant to us and our constituents who seek to rightfully restore their place in history," Thiele and LaValle wrote to Gov. Cuomo. "As you take this bill into consideration, we respectfully ask you to keep in mind that the Montaukett Indian Nation is alive and thriving. We wholeheartedly believe that they deserve to be acknowledged by the State."
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