Clash Over Natives’ Graves Inflames Hochul’s Relationship With Tribes

A stretch of Atlantic shore on Long Island, where reminders of the Montaukett tribe abound, called Napeague Ocean Beach, a name drawn from a Montaukett word that means “overflowed by the Sea,” in Amagansett, N.Y., June 20, 2022. (Johnny Milano/The New

A stretch of Atlantic shore on Long Island, where reminders of the Montaukett tribe abound, called Napeague Ocean Beach, a name drawn from a Montaukett word that means “overflowed by the Sea,” in Amagansett, N.Y., June 20, 2022. (Johnny Milano/The New

MONTAUK, N.Y. — New York’s Native American tribes fought bitterly with former Gov. Andrew Cuomo over his efforts to tax their tobacco sales and seize a sizable share of their gambling proceeds, and they blamed him for the deterioration of a stretch of interstate that slices through tribal lands.

So when Cuomo resigned in disgrace in 2021, tribal leaders found reason to hope for more amiable relations with his successor, Kathy Hochul, who was born and raised in western New York, not far from the state’s largest reservation. A less prickly chief executive held out promise for greater accommodation.

Instead, the tensions between the tribes and the governor’s office have increased, with Hochul taking a series of actions that have left the tribal and state leaders as far apart as ever.

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While seeking to finance a new stadium for the billionaire owners of the Buffalo Bills, Hochul, in her words, “started playing hardball” with the Seneca Nation by freezing its bank accounts until it handed over more than $500 million in gambling revenues. The tribe contends it never owed the money, although federal courts have backed the state’s demands.

She also nixed legislation that would have granted long-sought recognition to Long Island’s Montaukett tribe, which was declared extinct over a century ago in racist court rulings that remain in force today.

But perhaps no official action by Hochul has angered the state’s Native Americans more than her veto last year of a bill that would have made it more difficult for developers to build atop the remains of Indigenous people’s ancestors.

Despite its reputation for being progressive, New York is one of just four states that offer no meaningful protections for unmarked graves discovered on private property. Even deep red states like Alabama and Wyoming offer more safeguards for Native American graves than New York does.

The bill that Hochul vetoed, known as the Unmarked Burial Protection Act, would have required builders to halt work after discovering ancient graves and associated artifacts, and to notify the local coroner or medical examiner. They would then call the state archaeologist, direct descendants of the dead and a new burial site review committee, who would help determine what to do next.

Powerful business and real estate interests, who have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hochul’s campaigns, raised objections about adding new layers of bureaucracy that could slow development. Aides said campaign contributions played no role in her decision to issue the veto.

Hochul declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a Dec. 30 letter explaining her decision, she echoed some of those concerns, citing the lack of deadlines and saying landowners would be “forced to accept decisions that impact their property.”

She has promised to keep working with tribal leaders and their advocates to find a compromise. Still, Native American groups from Long Island to Niagara Falls said they felt the veto land like a gut punch.

“Now we know clearly how she feels about the Native people in this state,” said Chief Harry Wallace, the leader of Long Island’s Unkechaug Nation and a driving force behind the unmarked graves protection effort. “It turns out that she’s just as much in support of the property developers as the previous governor was.”

In January the state’s largest tribe, the Seneca Nation, adopted a resolution describing Hochul’s veto of the burial bill as part of an ongoing “pattern of disrespect” for Indigenous New Yorkers.

“For more than two centuries, our governments, our people and our priorities have been greeted with a deafening silence and contempt from New York governors,” said the Seneca president, Rickey L. Armstrong Sr. “We see little hope for change based on recent actions.”

‘There Is No Protection’

In New York state, developers of privately owned land can build on top of — or even plunder — the ancient graves of Native Americans, enslaved people, Revolutionary War soldiers and European settlers without fear of consequences.

“If they’re on your property, they belong to the landowner,” said Lisa Anderson, curator of bioarcheology for the New York State Museum. “There is no protection. So graves do get disturbed.”

For years, one state legislator, Assembly member Steve Englebright, a Democrat from Long Island, tried to change that, filing eight burial protection bills from 2005 to 2021. Most of them died in committee. None ever made it to a vote.

Englebright chalked up the failures to the influence of building interests.

But last year Englebright filed a ninth bill, and, in a legislature that had become more progressive, nothing emerged to stop it. A companion bill introduced in the state Senate passed both houses unanimously, without debate.

“The bill’s time had finally arrived in part because of the philosophical bent of members of the Assembly and the composition of the Senate basically being more tolerant of bills that might push up against traditional industry powerhouses,” said Englebright, who lost a bid for reelection not long after the bill passed.

The same month, the Real Estate Board of New York, a group representing an industry that has given millions to Hochul’s campaigns, brought its concerns to her, cautioning against the possibility of overregulation, records and interviews show. A memo written by a real estate board member warned that the legislation had “the potential to create substantial delays” if graves were found on job sites.

Hochul’s office also reached out to the Partnership for New York City, whose executive committee members, a who’s who of corporate CEOs in Manhattan, have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hochul’s campaigns. In response, the partnership sent the governor a copy of the real estate board’s memo, the partnership’s CEO, Kathy Wylde, said.

Neither organization requested a veto, their representatives said.

Another influential group, the New York State Builders Association, raised its own concerns. The organization’s executive vice president, Mike Fazio, said his group told the governor’s office that it supported the concept but opposed the bill as drafted over worries that it put too many burdens on property owners.

Hochul attempted to forge a compromise, but changes the bill’s opponents found more palatable — such as setting a timeline for removing or reburying bodies and defining the extent that property owners have a role — were rejected by Englebright, the bill author, and Wallace, the Unkechaug chief.

Hochul vetoed it, although her office has signaled she would sign a bill that sets clearer timelines and builds in protections for property owners.

Two members of the New York State Tribal Courts Committee, a panel that assists in resolving issues between sovereign nations and the courts, are now helping to negotiate a new version of the bill that would balance property rights with protections for human remains. The members, Mark A. Montour of Buffalo and Lizbeth González of the Bronx, who both also serve as New York state appellate judges, say a resolution seems imminent.

A spokesperson for Hochul’s office, Hazel Crampton-Hays, said the first version of the bill would have taken New York from one outlier position to another — from a state with no protections on private lands to one that could indefinitely hold up building projects if graves were discovered.

Recognition Denied

Hochul’s aides say she is anything but hostile to Native American groups in New York state.

They pointed to several pro-Native moves by the governor, including her role in returning land to the Onondagas and plans to appoint a staff member solely dedicated to Native American affairs. And although she vetoed a hunting and fishing bill the tribes had pushed for, Hochul directed her administration to protect the rights of Native Americans whose hunting and fishing are protected by treaty law.

Also under the Hochul administration, the state Department of Environmental Conservation created an Office of Indian Nation Affairs to ensure issues that are important to Native Americans were heard by the agency’s leaders.

“I can tell you that this governor has been more supportive of our efforts to strengthen our relationship with the nations than any other governor, really any other governors in memory, not just her predecessor,” said the commissioner of the Environmental Conservation Department, Basil Seggos.

But another veto by Hochul stirred anger among Native American leaders. This one amounted to a refusal to grant state recognition to the beleaguered Montaukett tribe of Long Island.

The Montauketts — who gave their name to the hamlet on the island’s eastern edge — had lived in that area for centuries by the late 1800s, when a businessman, Arthur Benson, snapped up 10,000 acres in and around Montauk with a vision of creating a playground for the rich, connected to New York City by rail.

The tribe held perpetual leases on some of the land, and a decadeslong court battle ensued, culminating in a hearing in which Judge Abel Blackmar of Suffolk County State Supreme Court described the Montauketts as a “shiftless” people who served whites and mixed with other races, and, with several Montauketts sitting in the courtroom, declared the tribe to be extinct.

A state appeals court later upheld the decision.

State lawmakers in recent years voted four times to grant state recognition to the Montauketts, with Cuomo vetoing three of the bills and Hochul disapproving the fourth last December.

In a letter explaining the decision, Hochul cited a dispute between different groups over which one represented the tribe.

Some state legislators reacted with disappointment.

“I was hoping with the new governor that we would get a fresh look,” said state Assembly member Fred Thiele, a Long Island Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “It certainly doesn’t appear that way here.”

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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