The time has come to make one man’s dream a shared vision for the community. In a country where people are so anxious to find their ancestors who emigrated here, so much so that a popular television show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” has spun off the Ancestry.com hoopla, what about right here? Here being our local ancestors. Sea captains and windmill builders aside, with all due respect for their contributions of beauty and livelihood, I speak of the original locals. The Montaukett, Shinnecock and Manhanset Indians.
Lawrence Cooke knows this. He knew it when he discovered a spear point on his land in Montauk. He had bought a house on Essex Street and “finding the spear point welcomed me here,” says Cooke. What he did not know is that he would be taking on a mission to dig up the past and with it resurrect a lost culture—a people sacred to Montauk—and in the process educate many about a history most of us did not learn about in school. The Montaukett lineage goes on through our current community. A place to gather and learn and celebrate such local history is a gift we can create together.
Cooke’s curiosity about the spear point and other artifacts that he came across on his quest became an obsession. He would unearth this lost people’s story, a people that founded Montauk, before it was Teddy Roosevelt’s hangout, before ranches came here and a castle was built on a hill. Cooke joined with other people who were as interested in the Montauketts as himself, comparing notes. A plan was forming before Cooke even realized it. “We wanted a space depicting life around Fort Pond thousands of years ago. The Pond is steps away from the museum’s location.” That is Cooke today, talking about the Montauk Indian Museum, which is to be built on the land where the little cottage behind Second House sits. Full site approval has been attained. A 99-year lease with East Hampton Town agreed upon. Peter Wilson, architect and engineer from Bridgehampton, has submitted all necessary applications and whatever permits are needed. Now it is about estimates on the museum’s design. Many companies are vying for the job, including Aiden Cornish, designer of The Children’s Museum in Bridgehampton.
“We have the artifacts,” says Cooke, “the lease, the approvals, what we need now is $700,000 to make it a reality.”
Saturday night, July 21, was a start. Three hundred people partied and donated at the Montauk Lighthouse under a tent. “It was a wonderful event,” says Cooke. “People had fun; they seemed interested in what we are trying to accomplish. Will that continue? I hope so.” Cooke is the first to admit he is over-the-top enthusiastic about the Montauk Indians and the museum coming to fruition. He is as sincere as they come. He sees his spirited team as no coincidence. I mentioned Peter Wilson, architect. And then there are the historical experts to answer such questions as, “how did these local Native Americans live? What happened to them? Where is the truth, the history of the land, for all to know and appreciate? A mainstream awareness is needed.” He found Dr. Gaynell Stone, Professor of Archaeology at Suffolk Community College and author of Languages and Lore of the Long Island Indians, The Historical Archaeology of Long Island and The Shinnecock Indians.
Another expert on Cooke’s dream team, is Dr. Maria Louise Sidoroff, an archaeologist and member of The Society of Primitive Technology, which specializes in pottery. On October 13, on the grounds of Second House, there will be an Archaeological Fest with demonstrations of Native American skills such as pottery making. It provides another opportunity to ask questions about the Montauk Indian Museum. Donate if you can and become part of an educational experience a whole community can share.
Which leads me to an element of this dream that Cooke wanted to talk about. “Can the non- Native Americans, such as myself, join forces with our local Native Americans and come together as a community?” Cooke hopes that it can. Some recent history bears mentioning. Chief Robert Pharaoh, of the Montaukett Indians, wants to teach the community about his ancestors and their relationship to the land they lived on out here. There are a handful of Montauketts still living on the East End. Pharaoh has been fighting for federal recognition for his tribe for a while now and has spoken about his own vision for a place where the history and artifacts and culture of his people can be displayed in a “natural way.” Pharaoh attended the first meeting when Cooke met with John Strong, Professor at Southampton College to discuss this idea of a Montauk Indian Museum. “He was a quiet observer,” says Cooke of Pharaoh. Cooke is anything but quiet, but make no mistake he cares about the Montauketts and their culture and history. Can the two men join together as an example of harmony and community, as the Montauketts themselves did with the settlers so long ago? Why not a joint venture? A shared dream?
Cooke is not trying to step on anyone’s toes. He was drawn into the idea – it was not a volunteer project. It was not something he longed to do in his retirement from the NYFD, living in the place he loves so much. He wasn’t bored. He is “grateful.” He has a wife and two sons and loves his family. “A certain amount of peace got sacrificed to go through this process of building a museum.” But Cooke would not have it any other way. “I feel very strongly that something led me to do this. I am on this path. What I found in ponds and what we unearthed, what I know is that an entirely different human being than me, created all of this.” And Cooke thinks it is worth his time to share with the community what he and others know about a people who loved Montauk first.
Check out montaukindianmuseum.org for more information or to donate to the cause.