Plans for a Montauk Indian Museum Proceed

“We all have our roots in stone,” says Montauk resident Lawrence Cooke, explaining what he hopes will be the distinguishing rationale for the 1,500 square-foot hands-on museum he hopes to realize on the grounds of Second House in conjunction with the Montauk Historical Society (he’s a member of the Board).  Plans have been given preliminary approval by the Town, a museum committee comprising enthusiasts and professionals has been formed, fund raising is underway and public relations efforts, including a website, have been established. This year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade will contain a float with a banner proclaiming MontaukIndianMuseum.org.

Unlike other historical collections on The East End, which concentrate mainly on colonial European history, the Montauk Indian Museum will focus on the area’s “original locals,” a term Cooke prefers to “Native Americans” for its accuracy—there were no Americans in the early days of the Atlantic communities. Though Columbus got it wrong, calling the indigenous peoples he found Indians, after India, which he thought he had discovered, “Indian” resonates culturally among other prehistory “native” people identified by archeologists as inhabiting this part of the North American continent. By keeping the term “IndianCooke also notes that he wants to emphasize the uniqueness of the pre-European “original locals” while at the same time placing them in the region’s later pre-Revolutionary history of Montauketts, Pequots and Narragansetts. He’s already at work with the museum committee, whose honorary chair is Dick Cavett, on an October 13 fair that will feature various stone technology demonstrations, such as flint-knapping, or stone shaping, and food associated with Indian days.

For Cooke, who retired last year as a New York City fireman, commuting to Queens every day from Montauk, the museum initiative is not just a project but a passion, “an obsession,” he smiles knowingly. He shows off artifacts stored in his Montauk home—spear points, knives, hammer stones,  axes, pottery—his house and garage dotted with cartons, pails, table displays, books—many of the spear points spotted by him or his wife just by looking down. A recent finding? He sings the praises of Three Mile Harbor for its rich lode. An unusual find?  He holds up a round stone with a drill hole and pebble inside that he believes may be the bowl of a pipe.

Whence the passion?  It took hold instinctively, he says, after 9/11, when he and his engine company were called to assist downtown. Rescue? What was to rescue, a sobering thought that began to haunt him about loss and devastation closer to home, such as nearby “Massacre Valley,” the site of a savage battle between Montauketts and Narragansetts in 1653. In a “searching, introspective frame of mind,” he found 9/11 becoming for him a “big impetus for change,” connecting him to chance discoveries he had made earlier on his Essex Street property when clearing land for a new house, he discovered a spearhead.

Reading constantly—“thousands of hours”—Cooke proudly declares that he now knows where to look for more artifacts and where to place them in what archeologists have called the three periods of Indian Pre-history: Paleo, Archaic (migratory and hunting)  and Woodland (agricultural). His reach has extended to Bayside, Douglaston, in fact anywhere a casual remark may lead. Just the other day, he was off to Georgica in a kayak where he noticed a telltale sliver in the water—it was as though the spearhead had been waiting for him

The Montauk Indian Museum will consist of a horizontal extension built onto an existing cottage on Second House Museum grounds and will be under the aegis of The Montauk Historical Society, which also manages  Second House and The Montauk Lighthouse. “Build it and they will come,” Cooke says optimistically. An “art history” project of rolling, interactive exhibits designed to “educate and enlighten the public regarding the long prehistory of the Montauk area (particularly around Fort Pond),” the museum will also continue to be personally significant for its founder. What Ground Zero could not yield, his own environs can—reclamation, restoration, renewal.

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