Sharing native heritage at the park


Hempstead Lake State Park was filled with chanting and dancing on Nov. 5 as the park celebrated National Native American Heritage Month, featuring members of the Montaukett Indian Nation.

In addition to just sharing their cultural heritage, some of the Native American participants sent a clear message to New York state: to restore the Montaukett to being a government-recognized nation.

November has been celebrated as National American Indian Heritage Month since the presidency of George H.W. Bush. As a result, historian, writer and Montaukett Indian Nation member Sandi Brewster-Walker reached out to Hempstead Lake State Park to organize an event to honor the occasion.

Brewster-Walker and others set up a number of stations to display artifacts, pictures and pieces of history in a covered pavilion in the park, and the Montaukett Women Circle performed a number of traditional dances at the cultural celebration.

Brewster-Walker offered some historical context to the Montauketts and the other nations of Long Island during a presentation.

“I could talk for hours about the Native American history of Long Island, from 1641,” she said. “That’s when the settlers first came and discovered us here.”

While the Montauketts were centralized at the end of Long Island’s south fork, they existed and continued to live throughout much of the island.

“We cover the entire island,” Brewster-Walker said. “The Montauketts ruled from Hempstead all the way to Orient Point and Montauk.”

While maps will often break up Long Island into 13 tribes, Brewster-Walker said that these were just territories of one Montaukett people.

The nation was not cordoned off into a reserve, which was a double-edged sword, in Brewster-Walker’s eyes.

Spread across Long Island with more and more of their land getting purchased for development, representatives of the Montaukett fought a series of legal disputes around the turn of the century in an attempt to preserve their remaining land. In 1914’s Pharaoh v. Benson ruling, the Montaukett nation was legally dissolved.

“The Montauk Tribe of Indians has disintegrated and been absorbed into the mass of citizens and that at the time of the commencement of this action there was no tribe of Montauk Indians,” the appellate court stated in an opinion.

A petition calling for the governor to recognize the tribe has gathered about 1,500 signatures.

Their continued fight for recognition did not stop the participants in the Nov. 2 event from acknowledging the connections and blessings they have received from the land around them, however.

Mandy Miller Jackson, also a Montaukett, presented the dancers of the women circle with an appeal to nature.

“Let us recognize the harmony and blessings of the four seasons — spring, summer, winter and fall — that we have here on Paumanok,” she said.

According to the Richmond Hill Historical Society of Queens, Paumanok is the name of Long Island in the languages of local tribes, meaning “the island that pays tribute,” as the tribes on Long Island historically paid tribute to their more powerful Connecticut neighbors.

Miller Jackson brought three symbolic items representing three stages in life: a rattle made from turtle shell symbolic of childhood; a talking stick about a foot long, made of wood and leather decorated with leather tassels and feathers, which could be seen as a symbol of authority and adulthood; and the decorative head of a walking stick adorned with string, pearls and feathers, gifted to her at a burial ceremony she attended.

Miller Jackson spoke of the importance of the gathered circle of people at the event.

“Circles can help us come to a development of creative thinking and meaning that allows us to enhance our sense of community within Native American culture,” Miller Jackson said. “It also empowers us and awakens to a creative intelligence, which connects us within, which connects us to nature, and which connects us to one another.

“Let us continue to respect ourselves, be empowered with this knowledge, and be receptive to receiving protection and healing,” she added. “Let us establish positive emotions and thoughts.”

Three errors that originally appeared in this story have been corrected.