NY State Must Recognize the Montaukett

Why New York State Must Restore the Montaukett Indian Nation
and How they Should do it

Analysis compiled by Leighton Blue Sky


Almost every township on Long Island displays treaties negotiated between various Indian Sachems and Dutch or English colonials. Townships still tout these treaties to prove they legally purchased the land from the Indians who resided on the territory in question. The majority of Long Island locations still boast Indian names that visitors have a hard time pronouncing. Indigenous history permeates every corner of Long Island, so why are there only two state-recognized Indian tribes with only one tribe recently federally recognized on Long Island? Today, other than the well established Shinnecock and Unkechaug Nations who managed to hold on to small portions of their former territories, there are still at least three of the former so-called 13 tribes who remain organized into distinct groupings, the Matinecock, the Setauket and of course, the Montaukett.

No-one can reasonably dispute that the Montaukett was once the pre-eminent Indian tribe on Long Island. The iconic Wyandanch was the Sachem of the Montaukett whose authority throughout early colonial times extended from the eastern-most point on Long Island up to the present Queens and Brooklyn border line. Wyandanch was considered the “Grand Sachem” of a confederation of Long Island bands called in various history books either the Montauk Confederacy, the Matouwac Confederacy or simply the Metoac. Today Long Island tribal divisions are politically rigid, one result of centuries of colonial manipulation implemented to decrease Long Island Indian unity to facilitate their systematic acquisition of Indian territory.

The seat of the Montaukett territory encompassed the present towns from Bridgehampton, eastward to Montauk Point. Many consider this area the east coast “Riviera” – a playground for America’s foremost celebrities and socialites. The real estate value of the southeastern end of Long Island is unimaginable. Tragically, the Montaukett endured the confiscation of territory, the destruction of homes, judicial-instigated genocide, the dispersal of families – essentially the annihilation of a prehistoric culture just so this socialite Utopia, the luxurious retreat of millionaires and movie stars, can thrive. Although it is common for east-end residents to refer to the Montaukett as extinct, the Montaukett are still here – embroiled in a 105 year struggle to reverse NY State’s legally-mandated tribal genocide.

So why did Judge Blackmar decide in 1910 to declare the Montaukett as extinct? The story begins in 1879, when Arthur Benson purchased about 10,000 acres of Montauk Point from the Easthampton trustees for $151,000. Although Benson purchased the land, he did not have unrestricted rights to it. There was the matter of a lease given to the Montaukett in 1703. This lease provided the Montaukett with almost 11,000 acres of Montauk Point and covered residency, hunting and fishing rights “in perpetuity.”

In 1878, a local judge ruled that it was legal for the Easthampton trustees to sell tracts of land at Montauk Point, but the ruling also stipulated that the Montaukett right to “sit upon the land” had to be protected as spelled out in the 1703 lease. After buying the land, Benson began scheming with Austin Corbin, robber baron and proprietor of the Long island Railroad to extend the railroad lines to Montauk Point. Corbin, promised to build a giant railroad terminus at this new port and to ship passengers and freight on his LIRR trains to and from New York City. Both Corbin and Benson initially neglected to inform both the Montauketts and the Montauk Point townspeople of their plans. In 1882, Benson and Corbin signed an agreement to give the Long Island Railroad right of way through Montauk Point.

However, Benson and Corbin had to deal with one stumbling block – the Montauketts still held the rights to 11,000 acres and Montauketts were still living on the land in small houses on rocky land overlooking salt water. They fished, hunted, cut wood, tended livestock and chickens, and worked for white families in East Hampton. Tourists on their way to the 18th-Century lighthouse at the tip of Montauk Point passed by the little Indian community, which was viewed as a sideshow attraction – “The Last Village of the Montauk Indians.”

To secure the rights to this land, Benson enlisted Nathaniel Dominy, the Easthampton Town assessor who had a long history of dealing with the Montaukett. His task was to persuade the Montauketts to sign away their rights to the land and then move away. Dominy planned to convince the Montauketts to move to homes he would provide in the Freetown section of Easthampton. He offered the Montauketts as little as $10 each for signing individual deeds which gave piece-by-piece ownership of Indian Fields to Benson. According to court testimony, Dominy told the Indians they could return to Indian Fields whenever they wanted, a statement he later admitted was a lie. Benson paid Dominy well for his services and pushed him hard to double down on any Montauketts who balked at giving up their rights at Indian Fields and relocating to Freetown.

First, Dominy focused on Maria Pharaoh, the widow of deceased Chief David Pharaoh, who worked as a midwife in East Hampton. In her own words, “…Well, there was a man come to me a year before I moved off and offered me so much money and told me such sweet lies. I found out after. How he would give me $80.00 a year and he would see that I would never be sorry, for he would educate my children. He did not. The $80.00 a year he told me he would give me as long as I lived, it was to be always. I got it a few years and no more…”

Maria signed the deed in the spring of 1885 along with her brother George, and her son Wyandank, who because he was only 10 years old received $10 to sign a document he couldn’t even fully understand. In the next few years, other Montauketts who had initially rebuffed Dominy’s offers slowly followed the Pharaoh family’s example, each surrendering their land rights for $100 in cash and the promise of a a small plot in Freetown. There was no returning to the land after that. Newspaper accounts reported that Benson leveled or burned the Montaukett houses as soon as the deeds were signed. Indian Fields became his private property.

Although Montauketts were approached individually to sell their rights to the land, there are no existing records showing that the Montauketts were ever approached as a group and asked to agree to the sale – a clear violation of Indian law. In the summer of 1895, the Montauketts hired a lawyer to contest the Benson purchase of their ancestral land, which they claimed had been done without the whole tribe’s approval. The lawsuit dragged on for years, but gradually questionable aspects of the deal came to light.

Dominy and several Montauketts testified at a hearing in 1900. Dominy described his efforts to remove the Montaukett from their land. He admitted that a “lame” boy, Ephraim Pharaoh worked as a cook in his household and that he paid the boy $10.00 to sign over his rights to the land. Several Montauketts testified that they tried to return to Indian Fields and were removed by force. Montaukett Nathan Cuffee testified that Dominy promised to either relocate their homes or build them new ones if they agreed to move from Indian Fields to Freetown.

Nathan Cuffee testified.“The understanding or the promise by Mr. Benson to those people was that he was to build them comfortable homes, with so much land to accompany each house. And I have been in the houses, every one of them, without exception, and most of the houses, except one, are built of plain pine boards, stood on end, without any chimneys to them, without any plastering; just such a pen as I would build for a pig.”

In 1909, the Montaukett lawsuit finally went to trial. Now in his 80s, Nathaniel Dominy was again summoned to testify. He was asked directly by the tribe’s lawyer if he told Maria Pharaoh that she would be able to move back to the land after she received the deed to her Freetown home: Dominy admitted telling this to Maria Pharaoh. In fact he admitted that he made that promise to all the Montauketts.

Benson’s lawyers realized that because of improper actions, their defense was on shaky ground. There was indisputable evidence of their false promises to the tribe. Fearing that they would lose the case on the basis of fraud, they resorted to using a surefire stand-by – Racism! Instead of trying to defend their inappropriate treatment of the Montauketts, Benson’s lawyers argued that the Montauketts had intermarried with blacks and thus diluted their Indian blood through “admixture with Negroes.” They took the position that since the Montauketts were really Negroes, they were not protected by state or federal Indian laws and the 1703 Lease did not apply to them.

After a year of deliberation, in 1910 Judge Abel Blackmar agreed with the Benson defense lawyers. In Riverhead State Supreme Court he threw out the Montaukett case stating that the Montauketts no longer existed as an Indian tribe – hence by inference the “Negroes” in his courtroom were not entitled to make claims against a land that once belonged to a now extinct people. Judge Blackmar weighed the desire for justice of an ancient Long Island people against the monetary investment and potential profit of land developers and decided that economics trumped history and culture. The judicial eradication of the Montaukett people became New York State Law.

Judge Blackmar wrote, “Prior to the purchase of the Indian rights by Mr. Benson, there were a number of Montauk Indians in the enjoyment of tribal rights in Indian Field and a sufficient tribal organization to preserve to them those rights.” Here Judge Blackmar is acknowledging that before Benson purchased the tribal land, there was indeed a tribe of Montauk Indians who possessed rights to the land in question.

However Blackmar went on to conclude, “There is now no tribe of Montauk Indians. It has disintegrated and been absorbed into the mass of citizens. If I may use the expression, the tribe has been dying for many years.” What information could Blackmar have been using to declare that the Montauk Indians were absorbed into the mass of citizens and had been dying for many years? It is evident that he was referring to the inter-marriage with Negroes which was the basis of the Benson estate’s defense. We know this is true because he prefaced his conclusions with: “…The deed in partition does not so estop the purchaser [Benson] as to preclude him from showing the real facts as to the existence of the tribe…”

105 years later, it is shameful that this NY State Supreme Court ruling against the Montaukett still prevails even though its legal justification is based on Judge Blackmar’s affirmation of the despicable Benson defense – the Montaukett no longer exists due to the admixture of Negro blood – clearly “blood quantum” racism that current legal standards find repugnant.

In the past, New York as well as other states classified persons with African American and Native American admixture solely as African American largely because of racial discrimination related to slavery history. Currently, both federal and state laws protect residents from race and color discrimination, including the New York City Human Rights Law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. New York State should make it a priority to eliminate all NY laws that render any of its residents legally inferior due to long repudiated social science theories of a racist nature such as “blood quantum.” The Blackmar ruling is just such a law. This would not be such an unprecedented or controversial step. New York State already recognizes two racially mixed Indian groups on Long Island who still live on reservations and receive all the appropriate protections and benefits. Why should racially mixed “off-reservation” Indian groups be treated differently? Doesn’t the 14th amendment mean that states must apply laws equally and cannot discriminate against people or groups of people arbitrarily?

What is the Best Solution?

Due to an unprecedented tribal effort, two Long Island legislators, Assemblyman Thiele and Senator LaValle introduced legislation that authorized development of a procedure based on federal criteria to recognize the Montaukett Indians. In 2013 the New York Senate and Assembly overwhelmingly passed the bill with only 6 lawmakers disapproving. Governor Cuomo vetoed the bill arguing that creating a new state recognition process similar to the federal process would strain state resources. Instead, Cuomo ordered the New York Department of State to review the tribe’s recognition claims. Gov. Cuomo’s veto was disappointing, but his objections were logical. The federal government requires a tribe to meet seven criteria in order to obtain federal recognition:

  1. demonstrate that it has been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900.

  2. show that a predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times until the present.

  3. demonstrate that it has maintained political influence or authority over its members as an autonomous entity from historical times until the present.

  4. provide a copy of the group’s present governing document including its membership criteria.

  5. demonstrate that its membership consists of individuals who descend from an historical Indian tribe or from historical Indian tribes that combined and functioned as a single autonomous political entity and provide a current membership list.

  6. show that the membership of the petitioning group is composed principally of persons who are not members of any acknowledged North American Indian tribe.

  7. demonstrate that neither the petitioner nor its members are the subject of congressional legislation that has expressly terminated or forbidden the Federal relationship.

New York State would have to prove that they had the knowledge and resources in place to accurately apply federal guidelines to avoid legal challenges to their ruling either for or against the Montaukett. This would be a complex, lengthy and expensive undertaking. The federal government with the benefit of an ample staff of lawyers, anthropologists, archaeologists, etc. and years of tribal affairs experience acknowledges that it takes several years to complete the federal recognition process. R. Lee Fleming, the former director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment testified in 2006: “…In our experience verifying a tribal roll is an extremely involved and complex undertaking that can take several years to resolve [even] with smaller tribes…”

Several years just to verify a tribal roll? The federal government will not extend benefits to a tribe until this is accomplished. New York State adopting federal guidelines in order to evaluate recognition is not a desirable result for NY State or the Montaukett. This is why Gov. Cuomo assigned this task to his State Department in the first place. However, after a year without any word from the State Dept. we had to ask what is the State Dept. doing? After an extraordinarily long silence, the department issued a statement: “Issues regarding state recognition are being researched and reviewed by the Office of General Counsel of the N.Y. Dept. of State. This process is ongoing and no conclusions have been reached at this time.”

The legislators who sponsored the original bill were frustrated with the NY State Department’s lack of progress. In 2014 they introduced new state legislation that would immediately restore state recognition to the Montaukett without qualification. The measure introduced simultaneously in the Assembly and Senate would grant recognition to the Montaukett unlike the original bill that sought to create a process for granting recognition. Governor Cuomo said this bill was “unnecessary” because his State Dept. was on the case.

NY State has to acknowledge their abhorrent behavior toward the Montaukett from colonial to modern times. They must unmask the centuries of cultural decimation that virtually erased the Montaukett language and traditions; the forced infusion of other races into the tribal DNA during colonial occupation; the slavery and servitude forced upon all Long Island indigenous inhabitants; the systematic confiscation of Montaukett territory from the 17th century until its conclusion in 1878; the disintegration of the tribe by a state supreme court judge in defiance of the state and federal constitutions; the forced dispersal of surviving Montaukett away from the tribal homeland; the list goes on and on. None of this was the choice of the Montaukett. It was forced upon them because of institutional racism and white majority economics.

The best and most honorable course for New York State would be to simply pass the second bill sponsored by Assemblyman Theile and Senator LaValle. (with some slight revisions). This legislation would add Article 11: The Montaukett Indian Nation to existing NY State Indian law. This would be the lowest cost solution for New York and realistically the best result for the Montaukett. The Montaukett should not be forced to wait for the State Dept. to get their act together. This is costly in time and money and could potentially lead to many pitfalls including unnecessary delays and even litigation if they don’t get it right.

In any case, another set of arbitrary recognition criteria is not necessary or appropriate to the situation. The Montaukett should not have to go through machinations to prove that they exist, since NY State unfairly declared the Montaukett non-existent in a self-serving, racist manner in the first place. It should be incumbent upon NY State to correct the injustice of their legal wrangling that stole the last vestige of Montaukett land and condemned an innocent people to state-sanctioned “erasure” simply to fill the pockets of land developers and robber barons.

Another conceivable path to tribal restoration is through the judiciary by launching a legal challenge to Blackmar’s Pharaoh v. Benson ruling. Reversing Judge Blackmar’s ruling would be the most emotionally satisfying for the Montaukett. It would heal the 105-year wound of judicial genocide. As attractive as this sounds, this would be the most difficult, expensive and time-consuming path to follow. Re-litigating Pharaoh v. Benson would trigger a monumental legal battle. Parties of Interest such as the town of Easthampton and Montauk Point land-owners have been preparing for this eventuality for years. They have unlimited resources and access to the best legal support that their impressive wealth can buy. Time is on their side and not on the side of the Montaukett. This would be a mighty mountain to climb, but It is definitely not a battle that the Montaukett should shirk away from. Nevertheless, all future endeavors for the tribe must begin with restoration of the proud Algonquian Montaukett Indian nation as a historical New York State indigenous people. We must first plant this root in order for the tree to grow in whatever direction the Creator sees fit. Recognition is undoubtedly the first of many battles to come. The Montaukett must be ready to face those battles as a strong, proud and unified people.