Hochul Vetos Unmarked Graves Protection 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

Gov. Kathy Hochul vetoed on December 30 a bill that would have protected ancient burial grounds from excavation in New York State, sparking outrage among the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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.

“I recognize the need for a process to address the handling of unearthed remains in a way that is respectful of linear descendants or culturally affiliated groups,” the governor wrote in her veto message. “However, any process that … also involves the private property of New Yorkers must protect both interests. This bill, as drafted, does not do so.”

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.

“After we rejected unjustified and unpalatable amendments to the Unmarked Burial Site Protection Act, Gov. Hochul made the indefensible decision to veto the legislation … despite the fact that the legislature passed the bill with near unanimous support,” the Shinnecock Graves Protection Warrior Society said in a statement. “This is yet another slap in the face in line with centuries of brutal settler colonialism and violent land theft. But we will persevere in our fight to preserve our lands from desecrating developers. We will continue to do what is necessary to protect our sacred burial sites and consecrated remains, which is something we’ve been doing since long before New York was even a state.” 

Hochul said she is working with lawmakers to help draft a version of the bill that addresses her concerns.

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