By Claire Walla
The fight to preserve Native American cultures on the East End of Long Island gained momentum this past year when the Shinnecock Indian Nation finally received federal recognition in 2010. Now, thanks to support from Senator Ken LaValle and Assemblyman Fred Thiele, the Montaukett Indian Nation is fighting a similar battle, this time with the state.
The tribe actually lost its recognition from New York State over 100 years ago after a court case that officially dissolved the tribe’s status as a recognized nation based on the argument that the tribe had dispersed.
“Currently, they are not recognized by the state as an Indian Nation,” Thiele declared. “The important part about that is that if you’re recognized under state laws, you can receive both education and health benefits.”
Bob Pharaoh, the tribe’s current chief and a resident of Sag Harbor, said that receiving benefits through the state is one of the perks to being a recognized tribe. But for him, the real advantage to state recognition is the ability to spread knowledge of Montaukett culture, and the tribe’s storied history.
The 1910 court case, which Pharaoh said essentially labeled the tribe “extinct,” was spurred by the relocation of many Montaukett Indian Nation members who, for financial reasons, moved further west.
“At that point, the tribe had no money,” he said. “[Tribe members] were exhausted, so they broke up and scattered to try to make a living however they could.”
While the tribe currently has close to 1,000 members total, he said there are only a handful of Montauketts still living on the East End.
Pharaoh said the Montauketts attempted to apply for federal recognition back in 1996, but the process proved to be too grueling.
“I just decided to back away from that, thinking state recognition would be faster,” he explained. “Anyway, it’s more advantageous to us now.”
With the legislation recently drafted by Senator LaValle and Assemblyman Thiele, Pharaoh said he hopes to negotiate with the state for a piece of property in Montauk to be “just for tribal use.”
“I want to try to [establish] a cultural center,” he continued. “Somewhere where people can go and see where we lived and what happened to us. My goal is to try to perpetuate the culture so that we’re not forgotten.”
There is a plethora of Montaukett artifacts now on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. Pharaoh said he has a good relationship with the museum and will be able to secure much of the collection for the cultural center he envisions for the East End, for which there is already a concept in place.
“I want to keep it natural,” he explained. “The design I have for the building is very unique.”
Pharaoh has already met with the architect who designed the Pequot Museum in Connecticut (a close friend) to hash-out plans for the proposed Montaukett cultural center. While he didn’t want to get into details, he insisted the East End has never seen anything like it.
“Let’s just say, unless you know where it is, you won’t be able to see it,” Pharaoh hinted. “It’s self-operating, self-powering and it’s underground.”
Assemblyman Thiele said the legislation to he drafted with Senator LaValle will probably be addressed in the spring.
“It’s important to right this wrong,” said Thiele. “This doesn’t have anything to do with casinos and gambling. It’s just fundamental fairness. To me, as an attorney, the decision that basically determined that the Montauketts were no longer a tribe was one of the great legal injustices in the state of New York.”