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Mar 13, 2012 4:51 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Montauk Indian Museum Caught In Crossfire

Mar 15, 2012 9:53 AM

Robert Pharaoh issued a statement on Wednesday publicly endorsing a proposed Indian museum in Montauk and also asserting his legitimacy as the leader of the Montaukett Indian Nation. Both the museum and Mr. Pharaoh’s claim to be the Montauketts’ chief had been challenged in a “warning letter” that an attorney retained by Robert Cooper, who also claims to represent the Montauketts, sent to government officials on Friday.

The warning letter was also sent to Lawrence Cooke, the Montauk resident who has been working with the Montauk Historical Society to get the museum off the ground since at least 2010. The cultural center would go in an outbuilding behind Second House Museum and would exhibit, among other displays, an extensive collection of artifacts that Mr. Cooke and others have collected in Montauk and elsewhere.

“The proposed museum should not proceed in the absence of the tribe’s endorsement and integral involvement,” wrote John L. Ciarelli, of the law firm Ciarelli & Dempsey in Riverhead, on behalf of Mr. Cooper. “At this point, no such consent has been sought, and none will be forthcoming.”

Mr. Pharaoh, on the other hand, said that Mr. Cooke had approached him directly at the outset of his project and asked for his endorsement, which, Wednesday’s statement said, “I gladly gave to him.”

Leighton Delgado, a tribal consultant, said in an email on Wednesday that Mr. Pharaoh “reached out to Lawrence Cooke yesterday to offer his support and pledged the full support of the Montaukett Nation, which represents ‘the overwhelming majority’ (as the chief puts it) of the Montaukett people.”

In the “warning letter,” Mr. Ciarelli refers to his client as Chief Robert Straight Arrow Cooper and says he was retained by Mr. Cooper “to represent the interests of the Montaukett tribe.”

The letter asserts that the Indian museum would be located on tribal lands without the Montauketts’ involvement, that it would dilute the cultural history of the Montauketts and that “the cultural relationship between Montaukett artifacts and Montaukett burial traditions causes great concern among tribe members that Montaukett burials will be disrespected, if not desecrated, to support the museum.”

Wednesday’s statement, signed by Robert Wyandance Pharaoh, Sachem of the Montaukett People, provides a stark contrast. Calling Mr. Cooke “a brother fireman and close friend,” Mr. Pharaoh says that he founded a historical center of his own, the Matouwac Research Center, and that it and the planned museum in Montauk “will cooperatively evolve into a comprehensive platform to disseminate the history of a proud Algonquin indigenous people who were once the preeminent tribe on Long Island.”

The statement goes on to challenge Mr. Cooper to present credentials proving his claim to represent the Montauketts, who are in the process of seeking tribal recognition from New York State.

Mr. Cooper’s letter was sent to the East Hampton Town Planning Board, urging it to discontinue review of the Montauk Historical Society’s site plan application, and to the town supervisor, the town planning director and Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman.

“The museum will be dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the history and culture of the Montauk Indian,” according to a website for the proposed Montauk Indian Museum. “Through beautiful exhibits, demonstrations, lectures, and events, the museum will bring the story of the original inhabitants to the public. The Montauk Indian Museum will offer visitors a place for reflection about how indigenous people lived through millennia, in harmony with nature as they walked lightly on our land.”

Mr. Cooke said he was “perplexed, confused and shocked” on Tuesday. He said he had reached out to Mr. Pharaoh, rather than Mr. Cooper, because “Cooper, from what I understand, was not in good standing with the tribe.”

“I did my best to ascertain who was chief,” Mr. Cooke said. “I did this with good, honest intent. You don’t have to be Indian to do that.”

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