A public feud between the Montaukett Indian Nation and a splinter group over a planned Montauk museum has laid bare the more contentious issue of tribal leadership just as the nation moves closer to New York State recognition.
A bill in support of the nation's quest for state recognition was introduced in the State Senate in the fall by Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). The bill has advanced to committee and may come up for a vote this session. It aims to reverse the impact of a devastating 1910 state court decision that declared the tribe "disintegrated."
The Montaukett Indian Nation under Robert Pharaoh, the sachem, or chief, has worked to build and document enrollment of more than 1,000 members over the past two years in support of recognition. The tribe requested the legislation and worked with LaValle's staff to craft it.
A separate faction called the Montaukett Tribe of Long Island, led by East Hampton resident Robert Cooper, claims it is the official tribe and is behind a separate recognition bill in the Assembly. Both have filed paperwork for federal recognition -- Pharaoh in 1995, and Cooper in 1998.
Earlier this month, Cooper, through lawyer John Ciarelli, issued a "warning letter" to public officials raising objections to a planned Montaukett museum in Montauk that the larger Montaukett Nation has supported.
In a publicly issued rebuttal earlier this month, Pharaoh, whose ancestors have led the tribe for centuries, challenged Cooper to prove his claim to leadership.
Pharaoh charged Cooper's group has only "a few hangers-on" who amount to a "totally insignificant fraction of the present-day Montaukett."
In an interview, Pharaoh pointed to a change-of-leadership statement Cooper's group filed with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs on Jan. 11, 2010. The document reports the selection of Robert Stevenson of Cape May, N.J., and two others to the title of chief/trustee of the faction after an Aug. 14, 2004, election.
Asked about those minutes, Cooper said Stevenson "is not the leader." A listing on the bureau's website also lists Stevenson as the contact for the Montaukett Tribe faction. Cooper said that reference is "probably a mistake on their [the bureau's] part." He objected, he said, because he thinks the museum should be an American Indian endeavor. Its main proponent, Lawrence Cooke of Montauk, is not a tribal member.
Pharaoh said Cooper has repeatedly worked to undo his efforts. "When I'm trying to get things done, he's trying to knock me down," he said, adding that it has cost the tribe 15 years of progress. "How can he ever call himself a leader?"
In his statement, Pharaoh said he supports the museum because he is "keenly interested in preserving and sharing the history of the Montaukett people."
The nation hopes the recognition bill can be approved in the current legislative session and has drafted wording for a process of state recognition where one does not exist, said Montaukett Nation member and consultant Leighton Delgado.
Pharaoh said he prefers to view the process as a "reaffirmation" of the Montaukett people. The Montaukett Nation has explicitly said it seeks a small section of currently unused land near Camp Hero at Montauk Point, one that won't interfere with the popular fishing grounds. It does not support casino gambling, Pharaoh said, and won't pursue it.