New York Governor Kathy Hochul has vetoed a bill that would create an “Unmarked Burial Site Protection Act,” drawing sharp criticism from Native activists. Democratic State Senator Leroy Comrie introduced the bill in March 2021 and it passed the state legislature with unanimous approval but was blocked by Hochul on December 30.
The Shinnecock Graves Protection Warrior Society and Honor Our Indigenous Ancestors released a joint statement on January 2 condemning Hochul’s veto, which they called “yet another slap in the face in line with centuries of brutal settler colonialism and violent land theft.” The bill received widespread support from Indigenous groups including the National Congress of American Indians as well as other entities, such as the Preservation League of New York State and the Long Island Preservation Coalition. The Unkechaug and Shinnecock Nations of Long Island have long advocated for the protection of their ancient burial sites, and won a victory in 2021 when the town of Southhampton voted to protect an ancestral burial ground.
The vetoed bill would have required developers to stop construction after discovering a burial ground and to report their findings. If the human remains were more than 50 years old, the discovery would be reported to a state archaeologist and a Native American burial site review committee (which the bill would have created). If the remains belonged to an Indigenous person, either familial relatives or the present-day culturally affiliated group would receive them.
The bill would also have created penalties for failing to report or act on the discovery of a burial site and would have granted the attorney general legal power over the issue.
In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, Senator Comrie said he was disappointed with Hochul’s decision but remains committed to the protection of unmarked burial grounds. “New York should not remain one of the handful of states with insufficient protection for such sites,” Comrie said.
In Hochul’s veto announcement, she wrote that “any process addressing the handling of unearthed human remains that also involves the private property of New Yorkers must appropriately protect both interests.” Hochul added that although she could not reach an agreement with the Assembly and Senate that would “balance the rights” of property owners and familial descendants and other groups, she hopes to address the issue in the next legislative session.
“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,” the Shinnecock Graves Protection Warrior Society and Honor Our Indigenous Ancestors said in their statement.
Chief of the Unkechaug Nation Harry Wallace told Newsday that the state’s action was “disgraceful.” “New York should never permit itself to be labeled a progressive state, because that is an outrageous lie. The way they treat human remains in this state is unconscionable.”