Shinnecock Nation Ignores Court Order to Stop Billboard Project on Sunrise

The Shinnecock Nation electronic billboard.

The Shinnecock Indian Nation says it will ignore a temporary restraining order granted on May 24 by a State Supreme Court justice to halt the construction and operation of two 20-by-30-foot electronic billboards mounted 61 feet over the right-of-way on each side of Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays.

The state Department of Transportation, which says that the signs violate federal and state highway regulations, went to court to seek the order after the Shinnecock tribal council ignored a DOT cease-and-desist letter that was sent on May 17. The tribe says the signs are on sovereign Indian territory that is exempt from state and local regulations.

In a press release on Tuesday, the Shinnecock Council of Trustees acknowledged that a temporary restraining order had been issued but declared the tribe was immune from “any legal proceeding brought against them and the Shinnecock Nation by the State of New York.”

DOT spokesman Glenn Blain commented on Tuesday, “The state will continue to pursue whatever actions are necessary to fulfill its obligation to uphold state and federal law.”

Tribal council members could be found in contempt of court if the tribe ignores the order, with arrest and incarceration as possible consequences.

The tribe activated one of the two 61-foot-high video signs last Thursday and about 100 of its members celebrated the event alongside the highway, according to reports. They have been under construction since April.

In its press release, the council said “under federal law, the Nation is recognized as one of 573 sovereign Indian nations in the United States. 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.”

In granting the DOT’s request, Supreme Court Justice Cheryl A. Joseph also ordered the tribe to show cause in court on June 7 why a preliminary injunction should not be issued, effectively banning the billboards. She set a May 31 deadline for serving the order to show cause on individual tribal council members Bryan A. Polite, Lance Gumbs, Seneca Bowen, Daniel Collins Sr., Germaine Smith, Donald Williams Jr. and Linda Franklin “by personal service at Panera Bread in Hampton Bays.”

The tribe also ignored a stop working order issued by the Town of Southampton in late April, as well as a letter written by Supervisor Jay Schneiderman appealing to the tribe’s conscience, he said at a Town Board meeting in early May.

More than 30 East End elected officials also signed a plea to the tribal council on May 8 under the Town of Southampton letterhead. “We understand that the tribal Council believes that these are sovereign lands, immune from local, county and state regulation,” it reads. “Whether or not such immunity exists, we implore the Shinnecock Indian Nation to stop construction and work collectively with other South Fork governmental jurisdictions on economic development project that are more in keeping with our area.”

On 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 it might commence against the tribe.