On Traditional Montaukett Governance

By Leighton Blue Sky Delgado


For many centuries the traditional Montaukett tribal government served the people well. It was not until the arrival of the Europeans with their strange notions of hierarchical governments and their inability to understand native culture that the traditional Indian system of governance began to break down. The European colonials introduced feudal government systems based on the authoritarian domination of common people by elite classes primarily through coercion.

One of the overriding principles in Montaukett culture was the concept of egalitarianism, the belief that all people are fundamentally equal. Montaukett Sachems could not impose conformity on the people. They could only endeavor to advise the people that certain actions would be for the common good. In other words, leadership was based on persuasion rather than coercion, consensus rather than forced compliance.

Sachems were the tribal leaders, but they depended on the support of advisors who shared responsibilities such as food production, tribal protection and the observation of religious ceremonies. For example, during a hunt the Sachem would count on the best hunters to lead the chase. To administer tribal agriculture, the Sachem would rely on those most skilled in planting, growing and cultivation. Inter-tribal relations and negotiations would be handled by the tribe’s most skilled orators – usually experienced elders. In times of war, the Sachem entrusted the battle strategy to the best warriors.

An advisor’s eligibility was based on that individual’s ability and performance. Advisors were appointed after proving their skill at a given activity and as long as their prowess was recognized and acknowledged by the people. An advisor was not a permanent role. Advisors would arise, but could only lead as long as the people chose to follow. There was no guarantee that they would keep their role for any specific term. They could be replaced at any time by a more proficient challenger who received the consent of the people. The Sachem’s advisors were not decision-makers. Instead, they gave advice and suggestions to the Sachem. The Sachem in turn would exert leadership by example and persuasion. Collectively, the Sachem’s advisors were known as the Tribal Council.

Traditionally, all Montauketts were worthy to serve on the tribal council. Unlike European-style hierarchical governments, with tiers of officials elected to positions that they held unchallenged for defined terms whether they were effective or not, tribal counselors served for only as long as their service proved beneficial to the people.

Why the Royal Titles?

An explanation of the use of titles such as “King” or “Queen” or “Royal Family” is merited here. The Pharaoh family name was once spelled Faro. The spelling was changed to Pharaoh for vanity purposes. Use of the European royalty titles were merely a sign of respect. The Pharaoh family was hardly royalty in the feudal sense. They were as poor as any Montaukett and during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Most worked as domestic servants for white Easthamptoners. The King and Queen titles were used interchangeably with Sachem.

Montaukett Adoption of a Hierarchical Government

The first attempt to reject the traditional Montaukett governmental system occurred in 1874. Some members of the Fowler family objected to the fact that since the time of Wyandanch, a Pharaoh family member was always appointed as Sachem through heritage. They demanded that an election be held to challenge King David Pharaoh’s position as Sachem. David Pharaoh reluctantly agreed to an election although in the end he received a majority of the votes and thereby remained Sachem. This result was not universally accepted and accusations of voter fraud and purchasing of votes spread within the tribe (Red Thunder Cloud, 1945).

This was a time of turmoil and misfortune for the Montaukett. Resentment continued between some in the Fowler and Pharaoh families essentially weakening the tribe at a most inopportune time. King David died in 1878. His presumptive successor, Stephen Taukhus Pharaoh died in 1879, thus leaving Wyandank Pharaoh as a 10-year old King when the Easthamptoners and Arthur Benson made their final move to destroy the tribe and seize the tribal territory.

At the turn of the 20th century, Wyandank Pharaoh was still the acknowledged King of the Montauks and led in the effort to regain the tribal lands from Benson and the Long Island Railroad (Pharaoh v. Benson, 1900 – 1910). The desire for an elected chief was never abated, and James E. Waters, “Wild Pigeon” whose lineage included Matinecock, Shinnecock and Montaukett claimed to be a Montaukett chief as early as 1914. It’s important to note that although Wild Pigeon identified himself as chief in 1914, he did not dispute King Wyandank Pharaoh’s supreme authority nor the position of the Pharaoh family as the “royal” family of the Montauks. This is evident in a letter sent by Wild Pigeon to Robert Winterhawk DeLoney’s great-great grandparents in 1914, where he signed the envelope as James E. Waters, Chief of Montauk Indians, but the body of the letter acknowledges Wyandank Pharaoh as King:

By order of the King


James E. Waters’ name appears below Wyandank’s listed along with others in the Tribal Council. Also, this letter lists the council members without hierarchical titles such as Chairperson or governance tiers such as Executive Council, etc. This appears to be consistent with Montaukett tradition as described earlier. (Note: This letter can be viewed here: Letter from James E. Waters, 1914).

The Montaukett did not completely adopt European hierarchical governance until 1919. According to John Strong (The Montaukett Indians of Eastern Long Island, p. 143) in 1919 James E. Waters held a meeting where with the support of the tribal council he was elected as chief and Wyandank Pharaoh was demoted to assistant chief. Wyandank Pharaoh evidently lost the support of the tribal council. Wyandank denied that this meeting ever took place and insisted he was still the King of the Montauks up until his death two years later in 1921. Chief Wild Pigeon continued the fight for restoration of the Montaukett Indian nation until his death in 1927. By 1929, the great depression, poverty and the struggle for survival without a territory to sustain them weighed heavily on the Montaukett and their struggle for justice faltered although it was never abandoned. During this time, the Pharaoh family never wavered in their quest to restore the Montaukett Indian Nation and regain the tribal territory.

Present Situation

Until her death in 1996, Olive Pharaoh was the acknowledged Queen of the Montaukett Indian Nation. She had the ultimate authority to appoint the next Sachem. In 1993, Queen Olive appointed her son, Robert Wyandance Pharaoh as the next Sachem of the Montaukett consistent with centuries of Montaukett tradition. As explained earlier, this tradition does not imply autocracy. A Sachem was chosen by birthright, but his or her leadership was far from supreme or authoritarian. Leadership was measured by actions and accomplishments – the Sachem’s ability to lead by example and persuasion. Critics argue that the problem with inherited leadership is the possibility of the ascendancy of an unworthy successor. However, elected officials don’t necessarily guarantee they will be worthy choices either. The current US congress amply demonstrates this reality.

The point of all this is that Chief Robert Wyandance Pharaoh is a leader rather than a ruler. He practices governance by consensus rather than decree. He is driven by a sense of community more than by individual powerfulness. He has been the Sachem for 22 years and during that time he has issued only one edict: The Montaukett shall never participate in the Indian gaming industry. His concern about Indian Gaming other than the obvious ethical issues is that it requires a tribe to surrender a portion of their sovereignty to outside corporate entities who demand the power to dictate critical tribal actions. Recent events in Long Island Indian country seem to justify Chief Pharaoh’s judgment on this matter.

Some have made accusations like “dictator” directed toward Chief Pharaoh. But, apparently these individuals don’t understand the concepts or ramifications of a dictatorship. Under Chief Pharaoh’s direction over the last six years, the Montaukett Indian Nation has achieved an unprecedented level of transparency, inclusiveness and equality, expanded the membership nationally and improved communication among members and supporters more than at any time in the tribe’s history. He has awakened the New York State legislature to the Montaukett, an indigenous entity that most of the politicians had never even heard of, or had believed to be extinct for over a century. The Montaukett stand on the verge of restoration because of Chief Pharaoh’s leadership. These achievements occurred while Chief Pharaoh stayed faithful to centuries of Montaukett governance tradition. This doesn’t mean a rejection of European governance concepts. This is worthy of future debate and action. However, such concepts are meaningless if the Montaukett remain a “shadow” tribe with no real standing in New York State. Chief Pharaoh only asks for patience and support while he makes this happen.

“A Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” -Lao Tzu, 600 B.C.