The Human Race: New York area tribes fight for survival

- The Fox 5 series "The Human Race" is an ongoing examination of race and identity in America. Many Native Americans across the country fear the few remaining connections to their heritage are being taken away.

Some Native Americans in Queens are fighting to preserve their legacy. The United States is in the midst of an identity crisis. Questions abound about who belongs and who has the right to be here. For American Indians, this debate dates back centuries and carries on to this day.

The complicated history of some of New York's first settlers begins in Queens. Inside a cemetery there, a stone split open by a tree carries the burden of both life and death. Unkechaug Nation Chief Harry Wallace said some of his ancestors are buried beneath the boulder. He said the boulder represents something strong. But he said his tribe deals with a "living hurt" because back in 1931, at least two dozen bodies -- members of the Shinnecock, Montauk, and Matinecock tribes -- were removed from an ancient burial site, as relatives and descendants looked on, and moved to a mass grave.

Queens historian and author Jason Antos said that the city needed to widen the boulevard in anticipation of the World's Fair. He said some of those remains that were moved to make room for what is now Northern Boulevard likely belonged to some of New York's first settlers. Antos said the Matinecocks were some of the first residents of the north shore of Long Island and Queens. They lived in small groups near the bay and spoke the languages of the Algonquian family. The dialect was spoken by hundreds of thousands of natives from Canada to Virginia. Antos said they were hunters, farmers, and fishermen.

But like nearly all Native Americans, by the 1900s most who settled in New York were overrun. Today, natives make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population.

Osciola Townsend, chief of the Matinecocks, said that after all these years, just three families still live in Queens. The group is now working with the Queens Memory Project and Douglaston-Little Neck Community Library to preserve their story. He said what happened to them is still happening in some form today and mentioned the Standing Rock, North Dakota, protests. More than 90 Native American tribes gathered there to protest the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. The Trump administration recently gave the pipeline the green light.

That brings us to Mahwah, New Jersey, and the Ramapough-Lunaape Nation. For the indigenous Americans, identity has always been tied to the land itself. Protecting the earth is a fight we still see today and why the Ramapough-Lunaape tribe put up teepees in solidarity with the Standing Rock protesters. Then it became very clear they had their own pipeline proposed to run through their land. It is called the Pilgrim Pipeline.

Chief Dwaine Perry said a lack of a political stronghold nationally has always worked against American Indians. He said that Native Americans don't vote in large numbers because, he said, they are "afraid of the power structure."

Since the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, access to polling stations near Indian reservations has also been an issue. There is no reservation, however, about opinions on the current state of politics. Perry mentioned the Trump travel ban and said he would invite anyone "insecure about their own race" to come to a ceremony with his tribe to relax and learn something about being human.

Tecumseh Ceasar, of the Matinecocks, asked the rhetorical question: who are the real immigrants? "If we're talking about who was here first, then please vacate the premises and give us our land back," he said. Ceasar said he balances the realities of the U.S. today and the importance of carrying on the history in his blood. He said that people like him are still alive is amazing.

Unkechaug Chief Wallace said, "There's an ancient saying by an ancient chief that says 'Time follows time, nation follows nation like the waves of the sea -- none of us are immune from the common destiny.'"

Destiny -- maybe like what happened with the stone in the cemetery in Queens. Inscribed on the front is: "Here lies the last of the Matinecocks." What has risen from the ground -- that tree -- tells a different story.

"The memory of it was misrepresented," Chief Wallace said. "I think the tree is evidence that we are still here."

They are still here. While the Matinecocks have never stopped seeking answers from the city, over all these years some history is visible. Part of Northern Boulevard was recently renamed after the tribe. It is the site of the Battle of Madnan's Neck, where the Matinecocks made their last stand before being driven out.

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