Shinnecock Leaders Dismiss Eyesore Complaint as Its Video Billboards Go Up on Sunrise

One of two cylindrical posts on each side of Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays being erected by the Shinnecock Nation to support electronic advertising signs to generate revenue for the tribe. Christine Sampson Photo

Claiming it is a sovereign government, the federally recognized Shinnecock Indian Nation is ignoring a stop work order issued late last month by the Town of Southampton and continuing to put up two towering video screens, one on each side of Sunrise Highway on tribal land in Hampton Bays, that will show animated advertisements 24 hours a day.

Cylindrical mounts installed last week will be topped with 20-by-30 foot “illuminated electronic billboards,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman reported at a Town Board work session on May 2. He said the town had written a letter to the tribe — in addition to issuing a stop-work order — asking it to halt the project as “out of character with our community” and a violation “of the spirit of our laws…”

“It is frustrating,” the supervisor said, “and I’ve been trying to appeal to the conscience of the Shinnecock people to work with us on economic development plans that will improve living conditions” on the Shinnecock Reservation but “don’t detract from our scenic beauty …”

“Absolutely not,” said Lance Gumbs, the vice chairman of the tribe’s council of Trustees on Monday, when asked if the tribe had any qualms about putting an eyesore on what has long been an advertising-free roadside under the terms of the federal Highway Beautification Act and the town’s own 1970s ban on billboards.

“What about the eyesore we see all around us?” Mr. Gumbs said of the development that has churned over the tribe’s homeland in the 379 years since white men first began settling Southampton, especially in the past century.

“No one ever asked us about any of those projects,” he said, citing as an example the ongoing condo construction project and renovation of the former Canoe Place Inn adjacent to the Shinnecock Canal in Hampton Bays, “a sacred area for the tribe, where we used to pull our canoes out of the water and walk across the land between Shinnecock and Peconic.”

“Now,” he added, “they have the audacity to try to tell us about our little project,” which is intended to generate revenue “to help alleviate the economic disparity between the Native community and the surrounding Southampton area,” according to a tribal press release, issued on April 30 to announce the installation of “two monuments along Sunrise Highway,” which were already going up.

Sachem Donald Williams Jr. and Council of Trustee treasurer Seneca Bowen joined Mr. Gumbs in a conference call interview Monday in which they denied that construction had been interrupted by any town opposition. They said the installation along the state-owned highway had been reviewed and approved by state officials.

“We’re a sovereign entity and land owners,” said Sachem Williams. “In 1640, we gave eight square miles of land” for the use of the first English settlers. That area is now the Village of Southampton, he said. Now the tribe is restricted to a 1,100-acre reservation on Shinnecock Bay established by New York State over the 19thcentury, but “everything else everyone is sitting on is Indian land” on which whites have encroached.

“For centuries, the Shinnecock people have been good neighbors and stewards of the land and have guided, sheltered, taught and extended an open hand to the settlers of Southampton,” the tribe said in its April 30 release. “When newcomers arrived in 1640, Shinnecock taught them the lay of the land; the movement of the surrounding waters; the flora and fauna of the area; and the customs and culture of the Native people.”

Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. on Tuesday said the state Department of Transportation had not reviewed or approved the project. He and Mr. Schneiderman both said town and state attorneys are waiting to hear from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs about the legal status of the tribe’s land in Hampton Bays before deciding how to proceed.

On Tuesday, May 7, the Southampton Town Board voted 5-0 to authorize the town attorney, James Burke, to seek out and hire outside counsel familiar with Native American legal issues to represent the town in any proceedings, including possible litigation against the tribe.