War of Words Over Indian Museum

A strong denunciation prompts angry rebuttal and threats of legal action

    Robert Straight Arrow Cooper of Springs, one of three men who have claimed to be the chief of the Montaukett Indian Tribe in recent years, has voiced strong opposition to the creation of a museum of Native American history in downtown Montauk.
    The museum has the endorsement of Robert Wyandanch Pharoah of Sag Harbor, who claims to be the legitimate leader of the 1,000-member Montaukett Indian Nation. A spokesman for the Montaukett Indian Nation has claimed that Mr. Cooper was banished from the tribe in 2004.
    Mr. Cooper’s denunciation of the museum project, which came to light in a letter read to the East Hampton Town Board on Tuesday, has prompted a strongly worded rebuttal from Leighton Blue Sky Delgado, a Montaukett Indian Nation tribal consultant.
    Lawrence Cooke of Montauk has proposed that the museum be located beside the Montauk Historical Society’s Second House Museum on Montauk Highway at the west end of the Montauk business district. Plans for the Native American Museum of Montauk are now before the town planning board.
    Reached on Tuesday, Mr. Cooper did not mince words: “A Native American museum is a Native American endeavor.”
    During Tuesday’s informal meeting of the East Hampton Town Board, Supervisor Bill Wilkinson read a letter received this week from John L. Ciarelli, a Riverhead-based attorney representing Mr. Cooper.
    “The Montaukett tribe does not seek to exist in isolation, and has, and will, continue to celebrate its shared cultural heritage with other tribes. However, in that same spirit, [the tribe] has asked us to express its firm opposition to the concept and execution of the Native American museum as proposed, and apparently, championed by [Lawrence] Cooke, who has no affiliation with the tribe.”
    The letter goes on to observe that the proposed museum would be located on tribal lands. “No museum on such lands should be conceived without the direct and substantial involvement of the Montauketts. The ‘endorsement’ of Robert Pharoah is a meaningless, superficial excuse for the failure to incorporate meaningful Montaukett involvement.”
    Mr. Ciarelli’s letter, which asks Reed Jones, chairman of the town planning board, to “cease further action on the pending proposal,” also raises the possibility of Montaukett burial grounds and traditions being “disrespected, if not desecrated, to support the museum.”
    “The implication is I’m digging up graves. Shame on him. That’s terrible. What he put out there is so wrong and inappropriate. This has been a monumental effort to honor the reality of his people. He’s clearly trying to use me to impress others, to attract followers because he doesn’t have them,” Mr. Cooke said yesterday.
    Mr. Cooke added that the proposed museum would not be focused on the Montaukett tribe alone. “Their historic record is one aspect of prehistoric life, the archeological record. It’s a stretch to assume that all the people were related to the Montauketts. This was a meeting place for migratory people. Montauk has always been a magical place.”
    In a strongly worded open letter to Mr. Cooper that appeared on the Web site hamptons.curbed.com this week, Leighton Blue Sky Delgado, who claims to be a tribal member, wrote:
    “The Montauk tribe of Long Island Cooper claims to be the chief of is actually a minuscule and illicit splinter group of about 15 people with no official standing whatsoever.”
    Mr. Delgado states that Mr. Cooper was “banished forever from the Montaukett Indian Nation,” and that Robert P. Pharoah, “who happens to be a fellow fireman and close friend of Lawrence Cooke, fully endorses Lawrence’s important project and will be doing so in writing presently [. . . ] This email is putting you on notice that we will not be tolerating this abuse of the good name and honor of the Montaukett any further . . . you will be hearing from our legal team.”