The Shinnecock Indian Nation’s 60-foot tall LED screen billboard presides over Sunrise Highway, also known as State Route 27 — the main thoroughfare connecting Southampton to New York City. The sign offers prime advertising space for any business. It also serves to provide essential revenue for much-needed Tribal infrastructure and services such as a police department and a health and dental center.
But the billboard on sovereign Tribal land has caused quite the stir among affluent locals and incited backlash from elected officials. The billboard has been called out of character and not complimentary to the scenic South Fork. The town supervisor labeled it an eyesore, yet the billboard sits a stone’s throw from a cell phone tower that stands 150 feet in the air.
“They’re building mega-mansions on half-acre parcels of land out here. You have a cell tower. All of these things are eyesores to us. For 400 years we’ve lived here and watched the desecration of land,” states Lance Gumbs, the Tribe’s Vice Chairman.
The New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) went as far as to file a cease and desist and subsequent temporary restraining order against the Tribe’s construction of the billboard. The mandate came late, and the Tribe chose to assert its immunity to legal suits brought against the Shinnecock Nation by the State of New York, and erect the billboard Memorial Weekend. The Tribe has filed a federal complaint against the state DOT to lift the order, and intends to erect a second billboard on the opposite side of the highway.
At the core of the controversy, splashing across local and national headlines, is a story about a Tribe defending its sovereign rights to promote its economic activities.
Gumbs has underscored that the Town of Southampton has “tried to stop our cigarette business and hold us down economically. In 2003, the Town of Southampton and the state tried to stop our casino. They got away with it — temporarily. And in 2019, they came after us once again, trying to shut down our ability to do this sign project.”
The Tribe isn’t backing down now. “Their sense of entitlement seems to want to entitle us to do nothing — and those days are over,” Gumbs previously said. “We live in the richest community in the Hamptons, surrounded by opulence and wealth. We will no longer be house cleaners and servants for the rich and famous in this community.”
Gumbs continued: “It’s a matter of moving forward with something that will benefit the entire community and help to improve the lives of our tribal citizens… it’s about economic self-sufficiency.”
The Shinnecock Nation is urging residents to stand in solidarity with the Nation’s sovereign rights by writing to local politicians that:
- Shinnecock Nation is a sovereign Nation and has the right to build on its land and pursue commerce free from civil regulatory restrictions improperly imposed by New York State.
- One of the inherent attributes of Tribal sovereignty possessed by federally-recognized Indian Nations is immunity from suit. Accordingly, the Nation, its officials, and its agents acting in furtherance of the Nation’s authority are immune from any and all legal proceedings brought in state courts.
- The state’s lawsuit against Shinnecock officials is a thinly veiled attack on the Shinnecock Nation and their right of self-determination. Throughout their history, their lands and economic future have been taken by the State and the surrounding community.
- The Nation’s goal is simply to generate revenue to provide for their people.
- The reservation has limited economic development potential.
- Tribal residents cannot “alienate” land, so members cannot even get a home equity loan. People max out credit cards to build or improve houses.
- Traditional economic stepping stones are not available to Tribal members.
More arguments can be found in the Tribe’s toolkit here.