A July 2019 photo of Shinnecock leaders in front of their billboard in Southampton
The Shinnecock Nation’s previously controversial billboard off Highway 27 (also known as Sunrise Highway) in Southampton, New York, is now being used to issue advisories related to the COVID-19 outbreak. The Nation put up the advisory at the request of the town.
On Saturday, the East End Independent reported, the sign read “Federal Advisory: NYC area travelers recommended 14-day in-home quarantine.”
For the Shinnecock Nation and the town of Southampton, the public-service message is a rare point of cooperation after drama over the 60-foot billboard. In 2019, Southampton officials sought to block the Shinnecock from erecting the structure, which sits on Shinnecock land. A state lawsuit against the Tribe over the billboard is still pending.
Now, both the Nation and the town of Southampton fear an influx of people from New York City who may be carrying the coronavirus. “We’re feeling overwhelmed and we’re concerned about our population spiking,” Southampton supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who led the charge against the billboard, told Newsday. “We’re concerned that New York City is a hot spot and will increase the incident rate locally as more people come out [to Southampton].”
Bryan Polite, chairman of the Tribe’s trustees, shared his feelings with Newsday by text message: “We have been invaded out here.”
The spread of coronavirus throughout Long Island has been steady, but somewhat hard to track given the differing resources and reporting from county to county. On Sunday, Newsday reported an average of 21 cases per community on Long Island. Cases seem to be clustered in various places, although that may largely reflect that more tests have been done in a location. Whatever the case, Long Island’s proximity to New York City has put it at risk for widespread infection from a virus that does not stop at city, county, state or Tribal borders.
“The Shinnecock Tribal Council always envisioned the signs to be used in times of public emergencies, and when the town sent over the first two public service announcements, they were immediately posted onto the billboards,” Shinnecock Vice President Lance Gumbs told the East End Independent. “The Shinnecock Indian Nation and the Town of Southampton working together to protect our East End Communities.”
On Friday, Schneiderman sent a letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo requesting restrictions on travel from New York City to the Hamptons. Three Shinnecock Tribal representatives co-signed the letter.
The Shinnecock are rallying together to keep their Tribal members fed with a food distribution tent staffed by volunteers and stocked with donations from Island Harvest, Panera Bread, and the Southampton Union Free School District. Gumbs told the Independent that the policy is “Elders first. We’re giving extra just in case. … We have been handing out school breakfast, lunches, and meals to our tribal children and elders/seniors every day.”
To keep spirits up and spread hope, Tribal members have been participating in virtual powwows. “I dance healing over this pandemic we are facing right now,” Sunshine Gumbs told the East End Independent. “I dance for those who can’t, for those ill and going through their struggles. … I’m dancing some good medicine we need right now. Now is the time that we come together in strength to be that medicine for the world and each other. We are being called upon to be the medicine that we need to be for each other right now.”