An eager crowd buzzed with anticipation in the Riverhead courtroom of State Supreme Court Justice Abel Blackmar on Nov. 17, 1910. A hush fell over the packed chamber as the black-robed judge entered and began to read his long-awaited decision in the case of "Wyandank Pharaoh, as Chief and head of the Montauk Tribe of Indians, against Jane Benson et al."
To the stunned amazement of about 75 Montauketts who were present in the courtroom, Blackmar said, in effect, that they did not exist.
"The Montauk tribe of Indians has disintegrated and been absorbed into the mass of citizens," Blackmar said, "and ...at the time of the commencement of this action there was no tribe of Montauk Indians."
That day in Riverhead more than 88 years ago was a watershed moment in the history of the Montauketts, Algonquin Indians whose ancestors lived on the Montauk peninsula. Although the lawsuit was primarily about whether earlier agreements had given the Montauketts perpetual grazing, planting and living rights on thousands of acres on the peninsula, a dominant feature of the trial was an argument over whether these remaining Montauketts had any right to be called Indians at all.
A 1703 lease agreement with East Hampton Town gave the Montauketts perpetual rights on the property. But in 1879, an investor named Arthur Benson bought most of that land from a private group of East End investors, planning to build an exclusive summer colony along the ocean. In the middle of the property, on a tract of land called Indian Fields, lived a small group of Montauketts. Rather than approach the Indians as a group, Benson's men got individual Montauketts to sign away their rights for as little as $10 each.
At a community meeting in the summer of 1895, the Montauketts decided to hire a lawyer to contest the Benson purchase of their land, which they said had been done without the tribe's approval. Although today the individual Indian groups who lived on Long Island are not considered to be separate tribes, the term was customary usage at the time.
The lawsuit, brought against Benson's executors as well as others involved in the development plans, went to trial Oct. 12-13, 1909, in Blackmar's courtroom. Wyandank Pharaoh asked the court to recognize his authority as chief, to recognize the Montauketts as "an existing Indian tribe" with the rights cited in the 1703 agreement, and to declare invalid the individual deeds that Benson had negotiated with him and six other Montauketts.
Defense attorneys immediately attacked the suit on the ground that the Montauketts had no legal standing. They were no longer a tribe, they argued, because they had intermarried with blacks and sometimes whites, and did not participate in regular ceremonies and meetings.
Race-related questions by the defense showed an attempt to portray the Montauketts not as Indians but as blacks. The first witness was Benjamin Barnes, a 70-year-old former town trustee, and here are some of the questions he was asked: "Would you say that William Fowler was an Indian?"
"Didn't he have kinky hair?"
"Wasn't he of mulatto color?"
"Wouldn't you say that he was of a mixture of Negro and white?"
Another Montaukett, Ephriam Pharaoh, was cross-examined by defense attorney Joseph Belford.
"Are there any Indian ceremonies connected with either birth, or marriage or burial?"
"I don't know, sir. I don't remember."
Wyandank Pharaoh testified that he was about 45 years old, and he was referred to as "chief" or "king" by other Montauketts.
"I claim that I inherited the kingship from my father, David Pharaoh, by virtue of the tradition of my tribe that the eldest son should inherit," he said. "There is not anything in the tradition of my tribe with relation to purity of blood. According to my theory it didn't make any difference so long as there was a trace of Indian blood anywhere that gave me the tribal kingship."
The defense moved to dismiss the complaint immediately on the grounds that Wyandank's lawyers had not proved "the existence of the Montauk tribe of Indians," that the deeds were valid, and that "the alleged Indians are of mixed blood, including 'Mustees' [mestizos], Negro and white..."
It didn't happen immediately, but 13 months later, Blackmar essentially agreed with the defense. He noted that after the 1703 agreement, Montauketts and their descendants did live at Indian Fields.
"During this long period," Blackmar said, "the number of Montauk Indians became greatly reduced and their blood became so mixed that in many of them all Indian traits were obliterated. They had no internal government and they lived a sort of shiftless life hunting, fishing and cultivating the ground and often leaving Montauk for long periods and working in some menial capacity."
Blackmar found the agreements made with Benson were legitimate, and in them, the Montauketts released to Benson "all their right, title, interest and claim to the rights and privileges in the land known as Montauk Point..." In addition, he concluded that the Montauketts no longer lived as a tribe, and no longer enjoyed any political or civil rights as a tribe.
"They have adopted the habits of civilization, are dwelling among whites as members of a civilized community ...they rarely meet together and ...there is complete absence of a distinct Indian community life, government and customs."
This is how the Montauketts lost their land. Today, they want to get it back.
South Fork Montauketts led by Robert Cooper and his cousin Robert Pharaoh have filed petitions with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs asking for recognition of their tribal rights. Last year, John A. Strong, professor of history at the Southampton Campus of Long Island University, published a book titled "We Are Still Here!: The Algonquian Peoples of Long Island" (Heart of the Lakes) supporting the claims of existence of the Island's Montauketts, Shinnecocks, Unkechaugs and Matinecocks."One of the most significant threats to both the land base and the assertion of Indian identity is the claim by outsiders that the Indian 'race' on Long Island has 'disappeared,"' Strong wrote. "As we have seen in Judge Abel Blackmar's decision, this widely held perception had tragic consequences for the Montauketts. This 'myth of extinction' is a recurring theme which has been retold many times by local historians."
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