Editorial: State Legislature votes unanimously for truth

In a Riverhead courtroom in 1910, a state Supreme Court justice looked out at a room filled with Montaukett men and women and said, in so many words, that he didn’t see them. 

Judge Abel Blackmar, in an overtly racist ruling, said the Montaukett people were “extinct,” that they had “disintegrated” over time and “their blood became so mixed that in many of their Indian traits were obliterated.”

His ruling also opined that the Montauketts “had no internal government, and they lived a shiftless life, hunting, fishing, cultivating the ground ‘Indian fashion’… and often leave for long periods and working in some menial capacity for the whites.”

With the stroke of Blackmar’s pen, the case of Wyandank v. Benson wiped out state recognition of the Montaukett Nation. The Montauketts became invisible and because they were “extinct,” they had no valid claim to the land where they’d lived  — and buried their dead ­— for thousands of years. Blackmar’s action was a judicially sanctioned stealing of a people’s ancient history. 

Last week, the New York State Legislature took a bold step to reverse this disgraceful decision. Sponsored by state Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), and Assemblyman Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor), a bill to restore state recognition of the Montaukett Nation passed both houses unanimously. 

It now awaits Gov. Kathy Hochul’s action. She has vetoed a similar bill before, as did her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo. They had their reasons to justify their vetoes, of course. We urge the governor to sign this bill into law.

Is there any valid reason rooted in law that would cause her not to sign the bill? If there is one, it’s hard to imagine what it is. It is also hard to imagine any other people in America having to argue legally that they exist.

In a text message after the vote, Mr. Palumbo said he was very proud of the bill and that it passed unanimously. He summed up his feelings this way: “Once in a while we can feel good about this business.” 

He got that right. In no small way, he and Mr. Thiele have honored both their elective offices and the rich history of eastern Long Island.

The overall lesson of this vote is that history counts. We mean the real history, not the one that’s put through a political filter. Righting wrongs matters enormously in a democratic society rooted in truth. Shying away from truth weakens all the connective tissue that trusses a society. 

What happened on the South Fork — the confiscation of Shinnecock land in the hills now occupied by some of the world’s most exclusive country clubs, and the removal of Montauketts from Montauk Point and their relocation to an East Hampton community ironically called Freetown — is a matter of real history. 

In dozens of ways, similar confiscations occurred across the North Fork. In the 1680s, a reservation called Corchaug Pond was established for the last vestiges of Southold’s Indigenous population. It was later taken away from them when Europeans wanted that land.

In the Cutchogue cemetery is the gravestone of David Hannibal, who was born in 1856 and died in 1936. He was of Montaukett ancestry. He worked on farms and in people’s gardens and, at the end of his life, lived in a shack on Fleet’s Neck. And he may well have been in the courtroom that day in 1910 to hear Judge Blackmar tell him he didn’t exist. 

There should be a monument on the North Fork to those who lived here before Europeans arrived and convinced them to scratch their marks on legalistic deeds that forced them off their land. 

In a small but significant way, the passage of this bill — whether the governor signs it or not — will help reconnect us to our real past. 

“We have a very deep heritage on Long Island, and with this bill we have a better future,” said Sandi Brewster Walker, the Montaukett Nation’s executive director. “David [Hannibal] now has a place in our history. He is no longer invisible.”