Pictured Above: The Hawthorne Road site on Sugar Loaf Hill, where human remains believed to be a Shinnecock grave site were found on a construction site in 2018.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed a bill that had unanimous support in the State Legislature that would have protected indigenous gravesites in the waning days of 2022, a move that makes New York still just one of three states in the union that does not provide this protection.
Both houses of the State Legislature unanimously passed the Unmarked Burial Site Protection Act in late May and early June of 2022, but the governor waited until Dec. 30, just before the year-end deadline to take action on the bill, to veto it.
“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,” said the governor in her veto statement, but added that a process that involves “the private property of New Yorkers must protect both interests. This bill, as drafted, does not do so.”
The bill would have required “the cessation of all ground disturbing activities upon the discovery of a burial ground, human remains or funerary objects,” required the reporting of the discovery to the local coroner and also to the state archeologist to determine whether the remains were of Native American origin if the remains were more than 50 years old. It would also have required the remains be returned to the tribe from which they likely originated and have provided for criminal and civil penalties for not abiding by this protection.
“After we rejected unjustified and unpalatable amendments to the Unmarked Burial Site Protection Act, Gov. Hochul made the indefensible decision to veto the legislation on Dec. 30, despite the fact that the legislature passed the bill with near unanimous support,” said Shinnecock Graves Protection Warrior Society and Honor Our Indigenous Ancestors, Inc. in a joint Jan. 2, 2023 statement. “Forty-seven states have laws that protect the remains of Indigenous people and others from desecration and destruction, and now Gov. Hochul is the only person standing in the way of New York joining that list. 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.”
New York, New Jersey and Wyoming are the only states in this country that do not have laws on the books protecting indigenous graves.
In September of 2020, after developers unearthed human remains when building a house on Sugarloaf Hill, the Shinnecock Nation’s ancestral burial grounds, Southampton Town enacted its own local law providing penalties for disturbing unmarked graves.
The law, called “Protection of Unmarked Graves,” added a section to the town code making it a misdemeanor to remove human remains or funerary objects from an unmarked burial site, or to deface or destroy the burial site and artifacts, punishable of fines of no less than $10,000 or imprisonment of up to 15 days.