Montauketts Want Recognition, Too
One of three self-declared chiefs says
A green tribe would mean green jobs
By Russell Drumm
(12/24/2009) Last week, when the Department of the Interior announced its decision to recognize the Shinnecock Indian Nation as a legitimate tribe — thus opening the way for federal aid and a potential deluge Morgan McGivern
Robert Cooper, the chief of the Montauketts, said his tribe would not go the casino route chosen by the Shinnecocks of Southampton, who received official government recognition as a tribe last week.
of wampum from casino gambling — one member of the greatly diminished and fractured Montaukett people said he wished them well.
“I give them congratulations,” Robert Cooper, a former East Hampton Town police detective and town board member, said on Monday. “They have been waiting for federal acknowledgement for a long, long time. They have lived as a tribe under the guidelines of the State of New York. I’ll express that to their board of trustees.”
Mr. Cooper claims to be chief of the Montauketts by virtue of his genealogy as well as his efforts to gain state and federal recognition for what he calls “the root tribe of Long Island.” He said on Monday that if “the Great Creator” wills it, the Montauketts will be the first “green tribe” of Native Americans and will do good works for the greater Montauk community without a reliance on slot machines and their followers.
“We know that in Montauk employment has always been hard to get and hold. It’s also a community full of retired people,” he said. “We know the future. The economy doesn’t hold much for places like ours. We will do things for the public the government can’t do in the 21st century.”
“We want to be the first green tribe. We can feed green energy back to the community,” Mr. Cooper said, by building an assisted living community or getting involved in fish farming with the help of grants that official recognition by the government could eventually bring.
Over the years, two other Montauketts, Robert Pharaoh of Sag Harbor and Robert Red Feather Stevenson of Cape May, N.J., have claimed the leadership role. Neither could be reached for comment. The legitimacy of the three men’s claims is a matter for the remaining tribal members to sort out. “There are probably a couple of thousand, who were spread to the four winds because of the fiasco of 1910,” Mr. Cooper said.
There is little doubt that it was the incremental duping of the Montauketts by settlers beginning in the 1600s and culminating in a 1910 decision in State Supreme Court that explains why Long Island’s easternmost natives are not recognized as a tribe as the Mashantucket-Pequots of Southern New England are and the Shinnecocks of Southampton are soon to be.
The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs has seven criteria that must be met before a group of native people can be considered a tribe. In addition to having an active political system, the group must have lived together in one place since 1900. The Shinnecocks can trace their habitation long before that.
As late as 1878, the State Supreme Court ruled that the Montaukett tribal organization still existed. One year later, when Arthur Benson purchased all of Montauk in order to create a resort for wealthy New Yorkers, the deed specified that the Montauketts maintained rights over certain areas.
Mr. Cooper said it was ironic that it was his grandmother Maria Fowler Pharaoh Johnson Banks and her brothers who sold the last remaining Montaukett land at Indian Field — but they did so, he was quick to add, without the approval of the federal government, a requirement of the Indian Nonintercourse Act of 1790. The act stated that the sale of Indian lands was not valid unless “made and duly executed at some public treaty held under the authority of the United States.”
As a condition of the sale, Mr. Cooper’s grandmother moved with a few other Montauketts to Freetown, the section of East Hampton where freed slaves and expelled Indians lived. Mr. Cooper still lives in his grandmother’s house in Freetown.
When the sale to Jane Benson, Arthur Benson’s widow, was challenged in 1910 by Wyandank Pharaoh, the Montauketts’ chief at the time, the case went before Justice Abel Blackmar, who closed the case by declaring the Montauketts extinct.
“The Montauk tribe of Indians has disintegrated and been absorbed into the mass of citizens . . . at the time of the commencement of this action there was no tribe of Montauk Indians,” Justice Blackmar said.
Mr. Cooper said on Monday that he had filed the Montauketts’ tribal claim with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and was also seeking recognition from the State Legislature. He said he would ask both entities to waive the requirement for tribal residency because the 1909 sale did not have federal approval as per the Indian Non-Intercourse Act, nor was Justice Blackmar’s court a federal one.
There is more than an adequate record of the tribe’s existence, and in fact its predominance, on Long Island prior to 1900, Mr. Cooper said. In his opinion, at the time of the first English settlers, Chief Wyandanch was sachem of all of Long Island’s native people, including the Shinnecocks.
John Strong, the author of “The Montaukett Indians of Eastern Long Island,” said he thought that the Montauketts were a tribe, but no more or less so than the Shinnecocks. It was the close relationship between the Montauketts’ sachem, Wyandanch, and Lion Gardiner, East Hampton’s first European settler, that led to the extension of Montaukett power, not a tribal dominance.
“His authority never extended beyond the English musket,” Mr. Strong said of Gardiner. “He was their man. He monitored land sales. There was a lot of intrigue between [Long Island] sachems, but there was no confederacy like the Iroquois.”
Mr. Cooper has supplied State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor with the Montauketts’ tribal pedigree. As a result, the legislator has introduced a bill to begin the process of state recognition.
“He has a substantial level of documentation,” Mr. Thiele said of Mr. Cooper. “In my opinion, [their lands and identity] were wrongly taken away from them. I put in a piece of legislation to create a process by which they can prove it to the Department of State. The Department of State would make a recommendation to the Legislature.”
Mr. Thiele said he was familiar with the Montauketts’ internal disputes about their leader. “The Legislature can’t decide that,” he said, which was why his legislation did not preclude the other presumed chiefs from submitting their own evidence.
“I’m trying to do something to help my ancestors fulfill their souls, let their souls rest,” Mr. Cooper said. “I want the next seven generations to have fruitful lives on Long Island. We have the right. Nobody has the right to take what the Great Creator gave us.”