New York State of Mind: The Native Peoples of Long Island

New York State of Mind: The Native Peoples of Long Island

When people mention Long Island in New York, the image that most people get is what pop culture has had to offer. To most people, it is an island and serves as the retreat of the famous and wealthy who want to stay close to New York City. Many people are also aware that there is a large and ethnically diverse working class population here but there don’t seem to be many people who are aware of the Native communities that have existed here for thousands of years.

To many in the area, the word “Indian” means the pop culture version of the Plains Indians or Natives from other regions that have moved here. The idea that there were people here prior to European contact is vague at best. At worst, the consensus is that the nations of Long Island are extinct. This is a common theme among the tribes in New England that survived the First Contact. I was even taught during grammar school and high school that my people no longer existed.

That is the way that we are preferred to be seen in our own homeland and for a few centuries, my people did do their best to disappear. Our Indian ancestors here on Long Island were faced with laws that forbade the practice of ceremonies, the use of their language and even an Indian appearance. The effects of those laws are still felt today. It was that atmosphere that created Brotherton, and later Brothertown as many fled their ancestral home to try to retain their communities despite the policies of Indian removal.

Those that stayed held on to their culture and blended into New York’s melting pot. Ceremony and culture became a very private affair to the point of secrecy. It is still like that today when it comes to traditional practices locally. The culture and bits of the language were also preserved through customs and values that are generally unseen unless you are in the family, so to speak. This has proven to be a good strategy for our people as it has enabled the Native presence to survive on Long Island in spite of the Dutch, the English and a fledgling America’s attempts to remove all Indians from the Island.

The side effect of that strategy is that very few people really understand who we are. Many of us are working to change that. I grew up in an environment where I did not feel safe expressing my cultural awareness. It seemed that anytime the subject would come up, I first had to prove my “Indianess” by sifting through people’s preconceived notions about Natives. If my proof met their approval, I then had to speak for all Indian people and field a barrage of often tasteless and rude questions. Most people just smirk and say, “Yeah, right” or “We mean real Indians” at the idea of Indians on Long Island.

It is long past time to change that attitude. The Native communities of Long Island are very much alive and well. We continue to fight for our existence as a people. The Shinnecock recognition was one such fight that took thirty years to see a resolution.

The Montaukett, Unkechaug and Matinecock will hopefully see their day too as more people understand and acknowledge the injustices of the past and join us to fight for a better future for the Long Island nations.

I have compiled some helpful links so that readers may learn more about us, our history and how they can help the nations of Long Island and New England continue to preserve their respective cultures.

  1. Montaukett Nation Homepage: The first place to go for any information on the Montaukett Indian Nation.

  2. Shinnecock Indian Nation Homepage: First stop for information on the Shinnecock Indian Nation

  3. Unkechaug Indian Nation: I could not find a homepage for the Unkechauge but here is a blog and the Nation’s FB page

  4. Matinecock Indian Tribe: Two FB pages with good information.

  5. Matowauc Research Center: The Montaukett sponsored non profit NGO. This site has an enormous amount of information on nations of the region.

  6. Lecture transcript: This is a very informative lecture given on Montaukett history by Gaynell Stone Ph.D.

  7. The Lost Spirits: A documentary film that examines the loss of Indian land in Queens,NY by the Waters and Barron families, two branches of the interwoven Indian families in the Metro NY area.

  8. There Is No Tribe of Montauk Indians…: A short essay explaining the infamous Blackmar Decision that “erased” a tribe from existence.

  9. The Long Island Indians and their New England Ancestors: Narragansett, Mohegan, Pequot & Wampanoag Tribes by Donna Gentle Spirit Barron: A concise history of my own family and my people based on family accounts and historical record.

  10. An overview of the pending New York State legislation to reinstate the Montaukett

  11. Homepage for State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle : NY State legislator who supports recognition for the Montaukett.

  12. Hompage for Governor Andrew M. Cuomo: Homepage with contact information. Please feel free to send an e-mail to the Governor reminding him of our existence.

  13. U.S. Dept. Of Interior, Indian Affairs: Feel free to send them an e-mail urging them not to take thirty years deciding on the other nations that have decisions pending.

Mark Rogers is a citizen of the Montaukett and Matinecock Nations located in Long Island, NY where he is known as Toyupahs Cuyahnu (Crazy Turtle). He has served as a grass roots activist in the African American and Native communities and is a proud veteran NCO of the U.S. Army Reserves Medical Corps. He is presently working on a writing career and seeks to aid fellow veterans through his writing.

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