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East End tribes blend modern and traditional lives

At Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, Robert Pharaoh,

At Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, Robert Pharaoh, an ancestral chief of the Montaukett tribe, holds a photo from 1988 of himself and his late mother, Olive Pharaoh. (Aug. 16, 2010) Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

The late summer showers had ended when Robert Pharaoh, an ancestral chief of the once powerful Montaukett Indian tribe, arrived at Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor to visit the grave of his mother, Olive.

"It was nasty outside this morning," he muses to a reporter. "But when I got to the corner by the library, the sun came out and I said, 'Thanks, Mom.' "

The tall, heavyset Pharaoh, 53, is clearly devoted to the memory of his mother, who died in 1996. He visits her grave on holidays and on his birthday and says, without hesitation, Olive Pharaoh speaks to him from the spirit world "every day."

"She keeps me focused," he says, and adds that he can "hear things" in his head -- "especially when I'm doing something I'm not supposed to." He laughs and adds, "I never could get away with anything."

His mother's headstone is carved with insignia he designed: a turtle, the mark of his clan, encircled by a dream catcher and words proclaiming Olive Pharaoh as Queen of the Montauketts, the original name of the Montauk Indians.

"I didn't want it to look like something that was mass-produced," said Pharaoh, who works as a chef at a Southampton assisted living facility and lives not far from the cemetery with his daughter and an aunt in a 200-year-old house that his mother passed on to him.

Nearby are the graves of five relatives. "I feel very strong when I'm here," he says. "They know I'm here, every one of them."

American Indians have complex belief systems, often saying they live in two worlds. Some participate in both ancient tribal rituals and the Christian faith that arrived with white settlers.

On the East End, some members of the Shinnecock and Unkechaug tribes carry on such traditions as burning sage, cedar and tobacco as a cleansing ritual and engaging in sweat-lodge rituals and tribal dances to communicate with the spirit world.

Indians "believe in an afterlife -- it's a living, breathing reality for them," says David Martine, an American Indian artist and director of the Shinnecock Cultural Center and Museum in Southampton.

But even as tribal members revere the rituals, they are often reluctant to open them to outsiders.

"We're trying to protect them," says Margo Thunderbird, a granddaughter of the Shinnecocks' late ceremonial sachem Henry Bess, who was known as Chief Thunderbird on the 800-acre Shinnecock reservation. When white settlers "first saw our land . . . they saw other things they wanted," she says, and Christian churches "frowned on us as pagan savages."

Attitudes, and the law, have changed
Unkechaug Chief Harry Wallace says that until the 20th century, any manifestation of native culture was considered heathen and therefore repressed. "Ceremonial gatherings . . . were considered conspiratorial," says Wallace, a lawyer. "These practices went underground."

Most American Indian rituals were illegal, Margo Thunderbird says, until Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 -- after which "we were allowed to practice our ceremonies and speak our language."

Southampton historian John A. Strong, a professor emeritus at Long Island University's Southampton College, has written extensively on East End Algonquian Indians. He credits Margo Thunderbird and several other tribal members with reviving ceremonies at sweat lodges -- small huts where steam rises from water poured on heated rocks -- at the Shinnecock Reservation in the early 1970s, part of the resurgence of pride that accompanied the American Indian Movement's rights activities.

Sweat lodges can be helpful in mourning, Thunderbird says. "You humble yourself when you go into the sweat lodge. It's like going back into the womb," she said. "When you come out, you're renewed in the spirit like you're coming out of the womb. It brings us close to the departed."

On the reservation, the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church, officially recognized by the Presbytery of Long Island in 1888, now incorporates American Indian rituals into its services. The Rev. Michael Smith, pastor for 25 years, grew up on the reservation attending the church, then studied at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Funeral processions leaving the church have been led by traditional medicine men and women singing a "sending home" song for the deceased's entry into the spirit world, he says.

In August, Smith presided at the funeral for Betty Cromwell, a beloved tribal elder and activist who died at age 85. "Betty sang in the choir and was active in the church like many of her generation," he says. "But she was buried in a traditional Indian dress with a fringe."

On the day she died, Aug. 1, there was another death on the reservation - that of 17-month-old Roy Antonio Jones III, who was beaten to death. Police have charged his mother's boyfriend, who is not a Shinnecock, with manslaughter.

After the boy's funeral at Brockett Funeral Home in Southampton, the hearse stopped at the Presbyterian Church, and pallbearers and mourners walked to the tribal cemetery overlooking Shinnecock Bay. They were led by two horses, one riderless, said John Abbate, owner of the funeral home.

 Rites rooted in nature
Abbate said he has found the Indian burial rites to be more moving and personal than many other religious services he has observed. "You can't even compare," he said. "This is so visceral, so rooted in nature and heritage. Their whole thing is Mother Earth and Father Moon. And everything they believe is tangible. When they're standing at the grave, the medicine men and women will start to chant at all four corners and they pray to the four winds."

The particulars for a Shinnecock funeral, Abbate added, depend on the wishes of the family. Margo Thunderbird said relatives may place items such as tobacco and strung beads and shells in the coffin, gifts for the deceased to enjoy as they move from one world to another.

Most tribal members "believe in a Creator, a higher spirit, and have respect for Mother Earth," said Lance Gumbs, a senior trustee of the tribe's governing body and vice president of the National Congress of American Indians for the Eastern Region. "All things are sacred."

Margo Thunderbird, who was reared by her grandfather Chief Thunderbird and his wife in Riverhead, said she grew up worshiping at an Episcopal church but also participated in "underground" Indian rituals at home. When Chief Thunderbird died in 1989, she said, the family held funeral rites at Brockett's, where he was prepared for burial in full tribal regalia. Her cousin, the Rev. Holly Haille-Davis, the first American Indian woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church, officiated.

"We burned sage, and there was a lot of smoke," Thunderbird recalled. "We had ceremonies with drums and songs." She noted that an uninvited photographer who tried to enter the funeral home was told to leave. 

Help from the spirit world
Like Montaukett leader Robert Pharaoh, Thunderbird says she speaks regularly to her grandfather and also asks her late grandmother Edith Bess "for intercession and advice -- like 'What do I do with this kid who is sick?' Then I wait for the answer." She adds: "I wouldn't be making it without help from the spirit world."

Unkechaug Veronica Treadwell says she talks to her late father, Donald Treadwell, known as Chief Lone Otter on the 55-acre Poospatuck Reservation in Mastic. He died in 1994, leaving her the house where she lives with her three children.

Her father, a poet and author, had a degree in psychology and offered people spiritual and therapeutic counseling. She said he served as an Army medic during the Korean War and was buried in "full tribal buckskin" at Calverton National Cemetery.

"He did not believe in Christianity but was very much into talking to our Creator," said Treadwell, who holds a master's degree in social work from the University of Buffalo. "There's always a sadness when you're not able to feel and touch somebody who moves on. But there's the other feeling that they are always there, and all you have to do is speak to them.

"It's not like picking up the telephone and you get a response," she said. "But you do get an answer. Sometime it comes in a dream or when you're awakened because you know you're in their presence."

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