Shinnecock Victory: Tribal Sign to Stay Lit, Judge Denies State Injunction

The Shinnecock Indian Nation debuted its economic development project, Shinnecock Monument, in early May 2019 to generate Tribal revenues. The Nation’s billboard signs in particular have proved a point of contention with the State of New York, but a judge has ruled in favor of the Nation to continue construction and operation of the signs on Tribal land in Southampton. Pictured: a July 2019 gathering at Shinnecock Monument. (Photo: https://jeremynative.com/onthissite/listing/shinnecock-monument)

It’s been a long saga for the Shinnecock Nation in defending its sovereign right to operate billboard signs off Highway 27 (also known as Sunrise Highway) in Southampton, New York. A 60-foot billboard is currently located on the side of Sunrise Highway on Shinnecock territory. 

In 2019, Southampton officials sought to block the Tribe from erecting the 60-foot structure. A state lawsuit against the Tribe over the billboard ensued, and a temporary restraining order was issued on May 24, 2019, before the Nation’s second sign could be completed.

But a significant victory came Monday for the Shinnecock Indian Nation. New York State Supreme Court Judge Sanford Berland denied the State of New York’s request to block the construction and operation of Shinnecock Indian Nation’s Monument Signs. 

The Judge’s ruling dissolves the temporary restraining order brought in May 2019 by the New York State Attorney General’s Office lawsuit against the officers of the Tribe. 

READ MORE: Shinnecock Nation Defends its Right to Advertise on Billboards Despite Opposition in Affluent Southampton

“Our signs are clearly within the Shinnecock Territory Monument,” said the Shinnecock Nation Council of Trustees. “It is the Shinnecock Nation’s right to conduct economic development on Nation lands.”

The judge rejected the merits of the state’s arguments that the Nation lacked jurisdiction over the land and that the sign itself posed a hazard to the broader community.

In particular, Berland relied on the U.S. Department of Interior’s findings in the Nation’s federal acknowledgment decision, which stating: “It is undisputed that the Shinnecock Nation’s ancestral domain encompassed essentially the entirety of what is now the Town of Southampton, and it has been established that the presence of the Nation in that domain has been continuous.”

With that starting point, and the strong body of law rejecting questionable land transfers, Berland determined that the State had not met its burden of showing likely success on the merits of its case.

He specifically declined to rely on questionable cases that preceded the Nation’s federal acknowledgment.

Berland further determined that the signs “pose no unacceptable safety risk.” He stressed the greater importance of the Nation’s opportunity to produce revenue through economic activities on its own land, unencumbered by state interference, deciding that the balance of interests in this case favored the Tribe.

Nation Demonstrates Signs as Benefit, Not Hazard, to Community 

The Nation always envisioned the signs to be used in times of public emergencies, and that’s exactly what happened when the coronavirus outbreak hit. The town of Southampton sent public service announcements to the Tribe, and the COVID-19 related advisories were immediately posted onto the billboards. 

READ MORE: Shinnecock and Southampton Collaborate With COVID-19 Billboard Message 

“The Shinnecock Indian Nation has continued to operate the Monument Billboard while the lawsuit was pending,” the Council of Trustees said. “Most recently, and at the request of the Town of Southampton, the Billboard has displayed public service announcements relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing safety information, and demonstrating its presence as a benefit, rather than hazard, to the surrounding community.”

“Although certain portions of the case remain unresolved, the Shinnecock Indian Nation is gratified at this important milestone, which confirms our right to conduct economic development within our territory.”

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