Shinnecock Urge Hochul to Sign Unmarked Graves Act

Suffolk County Homicide Squad detectives investigated human remains that were unearthed by construction workers in Shinnecock Hills on Monday, August 13, 2020
Suffolk County Homicide Squad detectives investigated human remains that were unearthed by construction workers in Shinnecock Hills on Monday, August 13, 2020
Independent/Courtesy Lance Gumbs

Shinnecock Indian Nation advocacy groups are among three dozen organizations urging Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign into law a bill that would protect ancient burial grounds from excavation in New York State.

The state Legislature passed in June the Unmarked Burial Site Protection Act, which would create a committee to review the discovery of an unmarked grave on private land during construction and enact criminal penalties if such a discovery is disregarded without alerting authorities.

“Private developers have unfettered discretion to destroy these grave sites without fear of reprisal,” the Shinnecock Graves Protection Warrior Society, Shinnecock Warriors of the Sunrise, Shinnecock Kelp Farmers and others cowrote in the letter sent November 15 to the governor. “If New York State can devise laws to protect wetlands and endangered species, should human remains command anything less?”

The Empire State is one of three nationwide — the other two being New Jersey and Wyoming — that do not have a law in place to bridge the gap created in federal law, which does not address such discoveries on private property. The Town of Southampton passed a law in 2020 that creates a review process to avoid disrupting burial sites, but the issue remains unresolved for the rest of the East End, Long Island and most of the state.

Besides requiring a pause in construction, the act would also mandate a local coroner to be notified, involve a state archaeologist and give the state attorney general’s office authority to intervene. The measure would also protect discoveries of mass graves in which African Americans and Revolutionary War casualties were anonymously interred.

The bill is among about 400 reportedly awaiting a decision from Hochul by December 31. Any bills she does not sign by then will be automatically vetoed.

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