Congress of American Indians Supports Shinnecock’s Right to Billboards on Sunrise

Shinnecock Tribal Council Vice Chairman Lance A. Gumbs presenting the resolution to the tribes at the National Congress of American Indians' 2019 Mid-Year Conference in Sparks, Nevada, in June. COURTESY LANCE A. GUMBS

As the Shinnecock Indian Nation is in court to defend its right to construct and operate revenue-collecting billboards along Sunrise Highway, the National Congress of American Indians, or NCAI, unanimously approved a resolution to support the Nation and others across the country that undertake similar projects.

The standing resolution asserts that tribes have the right to conduct economic development projects along highway easements on tribal land. It is an affirmation that affects many tribes across the country that have state or federal highways running through their ancestral lands.

The issue of whether tribes or states have jurisdiction over highway easements, or right-of-ways, on tribe-owned property has been the source of past conflict and stands as the reason why the state is suing Shinnecock leaders in State Supreme Court.

Construction of two 61-foot-tall electronic billboards began in late April across from each other along Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays for the purpose of bringing in millions of dollars a year to fund public assistance programs for tribal residents.

Southampton Town and the State Department of Transportation made several attempts to stop the work shortly after contractors broke ground, but work continued, because the Nation claimed full authority of the site. Town officials opposed the billboards’ conflicting aesthetic and expressed safety concerns, while state officials claim that Shinnecock leaders and their contractors are in violation of state law because they do not have a DOT work permit.

A month later, the billboard at the southern site was completed and operational—the same day that the State DOT and the State of New York filed papers in State Supreme Court that resulted in a temporary restraining order. The lawsuit has been proceeding since then, and no work has commenced on the northern billboard, although the tribe has ignored the restraining order and continued to use the existing billboard for advertisements.

Tribal leaders requested a motion to dismiss the case, citing sovereign immunity from suit, and Justice Sanford Neil Berland has yet to make a decision.

Shinnecock Tribal Council Vice Chairman Lance A. Gumbs submitted and pushed for the resolution during the NCAI’s 2019 Mid-Year Conference held in Sparks, Nevada, in June. In addition to his local leadership role, he also serves as the NCAI’s Northeast regional vice president.

“This is something that, even though it’s localized in terms of what the state and town are trying to do, it has national implications for other tribes if they want to do the same type of things on their tribal lands,” Mr. Gumbs said.

He continued, “There is a unity across the country, because we’ve found and we’ve seen over the years where something that affects one tribe eventually, through the ripple effect, affects all tribes.”

The resolution condemns state regulatory efforts to restrict tribes’ rights to carry out economic development projects on tribal lands and calls on the federal government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to protect the rights of all tribes.

“The action against the Shinnecock Indian Nation is but one example of a state attempting to exercise regulatory authority over tribal lands as a tool to intrude on tribal sovereignty,” the text read.

The National Congress of American Indians is the largest and oldest American Indian and Alaska Native indigenous rights organization in the country. Its executive committee is made up of a four-member board, 11 regional vice presidents and 11 alternate regional vice presidents.

“It’s a major accomplishment, and it shows that the tribes out there are taking this situation seriously as it pertains to the greater Indian communities around the country,” Mr. Gumbs said.