Shinnecock Nation Leaders Say Signs On Sunrise Are Essential To Tribe's Economic Well-Being - 27 East

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Shinnecock Nation Leaders Say Signs On Sunrise Are Essential To Tribe’s Economic Well-Being

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Lance A. Gumbs, vice chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Council of Trustees. ANISAH ABDULLAH

Lance A. Gumbs, vice chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Council of Trustees. ANISAH ABDULLAH

Tela Troge, Shinnecock Indian Nation tribal attorney. ANISAH ABDULLAH

Tela Troge, Shinnecock Indian Nation tribal attorney. ANISAH ABDULLAH

Council Chairman Bryan Polite speaking about the Shinnecock Indian Nation billboards being built on tribal land along Sunrise Highway. Also pictured: Council Treasurer Seneca Bowen. ANISAH ABDULLAH

Council Chairman Bryan Polite speaking about the Shinnecock Indian Nation billboards being built on tribal land along Sunrise Highway. Also pictured: Council Treasurer Seneca Bowen. ANISAH ABDULLAH

Council Chairman Bryan Polite and Council Treasurer Seneca Bowen. ANISAH ABDULLAH

Council Chairman Bryan Polite and Council Treasurer Seneca Bowen. ANISAH ABDULLAH

Council Chairman Bryan Polite speaking about the Shinnecock Indian Nation billboards being built on tribal land along Sunrise Highway. ANISAH ABDULLAH

Council Chairman Bryan Polite speaking about the Shinnecock Indian Nation billboards being built on tribal land along Sunrise Highway. ANISAH ABDULLAH

Lance A. Gumbs, vice chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Council of Trustees. ANISAH ABDULLAH

Lance A. Gumbs, vice chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Council of Trustees. ANISAH ABDULLAH

author on May 11, 2019

First, it was a simple stand along Montauk Highway, where Jonathan Smith, a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, began selling tax-free cigarettes in 1984. Southampton Town Police charged him with violating state law.

Then, in 2003, the Nation broke ground for what it said would be a gaming facility on tribe-owned land on Peconic Bay. Until Southampton Town went to court in an attempt to stop it.

Today, it’s a pair of two-sided electronic billboards being erected along Sunrise Highway just west of the Shinnecock Canal, on the southernmost portion of the tribe’s bayfront property, Westwoods.

Tribal officials say the latest controversy must be seen in that context: years of the tribe finding new economic development opportunities, and town officials immediately rushing to snuff them out. And they see motives beyond “quality of life” concerns.

“As long as the town has been able to keep us subservient and held down, we’re not a factor,” said Lance A. Gumbs, vice chairman of the Nation’s Council of Trustees. “But once we are able to establish any kind of a monetary gain, we become a major player in this game of the Hamptons.”

Speaking last week, tribal leaders said the 61-foot twin billboards on tribal land along Sunrise Highway will bring significant revenue from advertising—reportedly in the millions each year. They insist that there is no local, state or federal rule stopping them.

As to any suggestion that the project was a “surprise,” they say they first told town officials a year ago, and have been communicating, mostly a one-sided conversation, with state officials for many months.

To town officials, and others, who say they are “disheartened” by the proposal, the tribe’s leaders suggest a new perspective: the view from the humble Shinnecock Indian Nation territory outside Southampton Village, in the midst of opulence and wealth.

“Since 2003, you’ve seen the development in Southampton—it certainly isn’t the Shinnecocks who’ve changed the face, and the vibe, of the Hamptons. That’s an unfair characterization that we continuously see perpetuated,” said Bryan Polite, the chairman of the Council of Trustees. “We’re hearing words like ‘appalling,’ ‘eyesore’ … ‘Those Indians are going to change the dynamics of the Hamptons.’ And I just think that’s the height of hypocrisy.”

The sense of pride the project is bringing to the tribe, Mr. Polite said, is “indescribable” after years of feeling a loss of identity, even feelings of inadequacy. Of his Nation, he said, “Now they’re going to see something that’s prideful.”

“A lot of people don’t even know we’re here,” Sachem Donald Williams Jr. said. “Now they will.”

‘Marking Our Territory’

Four members of the Council of Trustees—Mr. Polite, Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Williams were joined by Treasurer Seneca Bowen, plus tribal attorney Tela Troge—agreed on Thursday, May 9, to talk in detail about the project and what led to it.

Many details are off limits. Figures published in The Press last week—showing that the billboards will cost the tribe’s partner in the venture, Idon Media LLC, $3.5 million, and that the two entities will split $4.6 million in advertising revenue in the first year and a projected $78 million over a quarter century—were dismissed by the Nation’s leaders as “wholly inaccurate” and outdated. But Mr. Polite noted that a non-disclosure agreement prevents them from offering alternate numbers—at least until the billboards are completed.

They also deflected questions about timing. Crews have installed the support posts and electric for the pair of towering billboards, which will have two screens on each face. How soon will it be done? “As fast as possible” is the only reply.

But they were eager to defend the project as one that will bring a steady, significant flow of much-needed revenue to tribal coffers for important programs, and will do so with as small a footprint as possible—less than 500 square feet, they say.

Ms. Troge noted that the billboard will comply voluntarily with the town’s Dark Skies regulations and will feature state-of-the-art electronics, including dimming at night. The tribe also is hewing to state safety measures for roadside structures.

“We’re the first people of the Hamptons, and we’re always going to be here, and we want to be good neighbors, and we have been good neighbors, and we’ll continue to be good neighbors,” Mr. Polite said.

Added Mr. Williams of the signs’ messages, “We’re going to say ‘welcome’ when they come and ‘goodbye’ when they leave.”

The tribal leaders say the decision to call the towering structures “monuments” was not just an exercise in branding. “Everybody wants to call it a billboard, but for us it’s a monument,” Mr. Gumbs said. “It’s a marker—it’s marking our land. … We’re marking our territory.”

Some have used the term “gaudy,” a term he bristled at. Referring to nearby County Road 39, Mr. Gumbs said, “It’s just as gaudy. It’s not pretty. … It’s okay for the non-Indians to do it. It’s okay for the non-Indians to desecrate the land. … But when we do it? ‘Oh, you’re supposed to be the stewards of the land.’”

A nearby cellphone tower, just east of the Shinnecock Canal, is much taller than the proposed signs, he said, and erected for business purposes. “But that’s not an eyesore? … It’s hypocrisy.”

“We are the stewards of the land,” Mr. Polite said. “… I just think it’s laughable to say that we’re going to lose the moral high ground, when all we did was clear out some dead trees and put in a sign that encompasses less than 500 square feet.”

The tribe goes so far as saying the signs will serve as an “oasis” along a stretch of highway where billboards have been banned since the 1970s, with plantings and other amenities to dress them up.

What Makes An ‘Eyesore’?

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman has said—and the tribal officials agreed—that the tribe first mentioned the billboard proposal a year ago, in a rundown of a series of economic development opportunities the tribe is considering or pursuing. They say tax-free gas stations are a possibility, along with a cannabis processing facility and other proposals.

Mr. Schneiderman said he told them then—and, again, tribal leaders confirm this—that the billboards would be the one proposal he would fight.

“But he had no valid reason for his opposition,” Mr. Gumbs said, noting that the supervisor referred to the signs as a potential “eyesore.” “That’s not a valid reason to us, because—we see an eyesore. From our perspective, this whole area around us is an eyesore.”

Mr. Polite noted that, as a lifelong resident and a graduate of Southampton High School, he’s particularly offended by the notion that what the Nation is planning is somehow out of character in a community that has become an international symbol of excess and wealth.

“To me, it’s hurtful. Growing up here—you know, I’m a Mariner, captain of the football team, played sports here, have friends—Coopers Farm Road used to be nothing but potato fields. Fowler’s used to be nothing but potato fields. Halsey Street used to have modest homes—now you have million-dollar homes on these quarter-acre lots.

“The whole dynamic of the Hamptons has changed, for me growing up here—and it wasn’t the Shinnecock Indians.”

He said the billboards were an appealing option for the tribe, both because they offered “a small footprint and a big economic gain,” but also because they offered a reliable stream of revenue—quickly. “We already have this money allocated in a budget for tribal programs,” he said. Any effort to fight them, he said, “It won’t just be a loss of money—it’ll literally be taking food off our tribal members’ tables.”

The tribe plans a revenue allocation plan for infrastructure and programs, which all tribe members will have to approve. Among the plans, Mr. Polite said, are the creation of a tribal police force, repairs to long-neglected roadways, an affordable housing program, education, health, and a child welfare program—“real social programs we’re able to do now.”

No individual tribe member will experience financial gain from the signs, he added. “This is not about us trying to drive a Bentley or Maserati, or have mansions. These are real-world consequences.”

Mr. Gumbs noted the “gulf” between the surrounding community and the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, where the last census showed 60 percent of the population below the poverty line. “Living in the richest community in America, it’s unacceptable for us to be in poverty, in any way. We’re not going to have it anymore. It’s done. The town can like it, lump it, whatever.”

He added, “Our neighbors around who feel that their sense of entitlement doesn’t entitle us to anything—that’s unacceptable.”

A Land Dispute

Economic development has been a source of friction between the tribe and the surrounding community dating back decades. The dispute in 1984 over the nascent effort to use “tribal sovereign power” to sell tax-free cigarettes to the public led to the Nation’s most lucrative business community 35 years later—smoke shops, including one owned by Mr. Gumbs, along Montauk Highway just outside Southampton Village, a major employer and economic driver for the tribe’s members.

In 2003, the idea of a gaming facility first became public, with Mr. Gumbs again a key supporter. The tribe had a ceremonial groundbreaking for a facility at Westwoods, a 96-acre property on the bluffs overlooking Peconic Bay. It has been a property in dispute over the years: For centuries, it was where Shinnecock settlements nearby harvested firewood, and it remains a site of cultural and religious significance where ceremonies are held.

But in the mid-1800s, a group of white landowners convinced a select group of Shinnecocks to sign over a 1,000-year lease on the land in exchange for outright ownership of Shinnecock Neck, the peninsula that makes up what is now the 800-acre Shinnecock Reservation. The tribe challenged the exchange as fraudulent, but for years the courts upheld the transaction—which, in the eyes of the courts, meant that the land was no longer “ancestral.” That became key in the debate over whether a gaming facility could be built there, a dispute that sparked a new legal battle.

To a degree, however, Ms. Troge, the tribe’s attorney, said the matter has been resolved since the tribe won federal recognition in October 2010—the genealogy and in-depth historical research needed for the effort clearly laid out the case that Westwoods is part of the tribe’s “aboriginal lands.”

In fact, the tribe says the same research has strengthened its argument that thousands of acres adjacent to the reservation—extending as far west as Quogue, potentially—represents “Niamuck,” also known as Canoe Place, which was a primary settlement for historic Shinnecocks.

That dispute, which the tribe sees as settled, but the courts have never resolved, could be significant to the billboard project, and not just because a tiny portion of Westwoods straddling Sunrise Highway is where they’re located.

Under The Radar

Mr. Gumbs and his colleagues on the Council of Trustees make no secret of the fact that the billboards are just the first in a series of economic development proposals: “That first win for our people. That’s going to send a message to our people as well, that, yes, we can do these things.”

It also will provide a steady flow of revenue, which will help fund gas stations, cannabis facilities—possibly even a gaming facility, though Mr. Polite stresses that while the tribe continues to explore gaming options elsewhere on Long Island, there are no plans to build a gaming facility at Westwoods.

But he flatly declined to rule that out as a future option.

“If we get more resources … I know that they’re scared we’re going to develop more of the Westwoods property, which is 96 acres of pristine property—we haven’t touched it at all, our development,” Mr. Polite said, referring to town officials.

Mr. Gumbs dismissed the town’s new eagerness to discuss alternatives to the billboards. “As soon as we do something, then everybody’s, like, ‘We have some ideas—let’s talk about other ways of doing economic development.’ And the same thing now—we’re back to the same thing. But it’s tired. It’s tired. We’ve had enough of it.”

“We can’t keep waiting and waiting for people to come with ideas to us,” Mr. Williams said. “We have ideas. We have projects that we’re going to complete. This is the first—and there’s ones right behind it. … It’s been lip service. That’s all it’s been. We said we’re tired of listening to that. We’ve got to move forward.”

But Mr. Gumbs sees something more at play.

“We’ve been under the radar, so to speak, for a long time. We have, as a Nation, not exerted our abilities to improve the lives of the people in our community,” he said. “We’re just taken for granted here. As long as we’re the ‘good little Indians’ that stay in the corner, everything is fine. But as soon as we want to do something economically …”

Mr. Gumbs added, “There’s this pattern that’s been established by the town to, really, hold us down economically. … It’s been the way that Southampton Town has been able to put their thumb on our necks.”

Why? “It’s about the potential of what we can become. They’re not stupid. They’ve looked around, they’ve seen what Foxwoods and Mohegan [Sun] and the Mashantucket Pequots have been able to do. The bottom line is, one-quarter of Connecticut’s budget is now reliant upon those two casinos up there. With financial strength comes power. We really think that’s what the factor is.”

He suggested that an influx of cash also could strengthen the tribe’s ability to fight a protracted legal battle over its “land claim.” It might argue in court that, as it did in a 2005 lawsuit, that thousands of acres of Southampton Town—including the Stony Brook Southampton College campus, the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, and hundreds of private properties in Tuckahoe and Shinnecock Hills—were illegally taken from the tribe. If founded, the claim could be a fiscal windfall, or valuable leverage in winning approval for gaming facilities here or elsewhere.

Constant Contact

The tribal leaders say they will keep a line of communication open with the town, and have been regularly reaching out to the state over the project—without much success in the beginning.

Mr. Polite and Mr. Gumbs said the tribe contacted Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. in November, asking for help connecting with the appropriate state officials about the Sunrise Highway proposal. Mr. Thiele’s office attempted, without success, to get state officials to respond to the tribe.

Until 14 live trees and a cluster of dead ones, all infected with Southern pine beetles, along the highway were taken down by crews working for the tribe. That got the state’s attention—since then, “we’ve been in constant contact with them,” Mr. Polite said. With a laugh, he added, “Then we got the whole entire regional operation here—in suits.”

In April, the tribe met with a dozen regional State Department of Transportation officials, and has been directly working with them all along, asking for guidelines for safety protocols and keeping them informed of progress. The state so far hasn’t attempted to intervene, though the attorney general’s office and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office were said this week to be in discussions about whether the state has any authority to stop the work.

But Mr. Polite noted that the tribe is only working with the state on a voluntary basis and doesn’t recognize its authority over sovereign land, which they say Westwoods is. “We’ve made that very clear—we weren’t asking for their permission,” he said. “We are trying to work [with them], being good neighbors.”

“In all honesty, we don’t have to answer to the town,” Mr. Gumbs said. “To a certain extent, we don’t even have to answer to the state. We’re a federal tribe. That’s where this disconnect comes.”

The disconnect was evident, they said, when the Southampton Town supervisor approached them to try to resolve the situation with an offer: The town would purchase the portion of Westwoods along Sunrise Highway, Mr. Schneiderman said, using Community Preservation Fund revenues.

“It’s just a slap in the face,” said Ms. Troge, who noted that the tribe would never, and could not, consider a sale of ancestral lands.

Added Mr. Polite, “It’s just a fundamental misunderstanding of this relationship since 1640. To even, in 2019, come to the Shinnecock Nation, asking to buy more of the land that you’ve taken from us—it was an affront. It was an insult. We were shocked by it—we thought it was a joke at first.”

Sunrise Highway crosses Westwoods, and Ms. Troge maintains that the easement for the highway—and only for the pavement carrying vehicles, not a wider right-of-way—was an “illegal taking” in 1959. Both the state and federal government are not permitted to take Native American ancestral lands by eminent domain. An agreement struck at the time, they said, is invalid, because it was not subject to congressional action.

Which could give the tribe additional ammunition if the state attempts to stop the project. There are echoes of the upstate Seneca Nation and its battle over the New York State Thruway on its lands. “The bottom line: New York has a problem,” Mr. Gumbs said. “They made a mistake.”

Ready For A Fight

There is an irony that local officials opposed plans for a gaming facility at Westwoods in part because of the traffic it would generate to the site. The billboard proposal? It’s a “niche market,” tribal officials say, precisely because of the parade of year-round traffic that passes back and forth over the canal each year—traffic this project will take advantage of but not add to.

Forty-one local companies have expressed interest in advertising on the signs already, they say, noting that each side of each sign will have two screens, one for local and one for national advertising. “For anybody to say that townspeople don’t want it? They’re chomping at the bit,” Mr. Gumbs said.

The progress so far has “galvanized our community to move forward,” Trustee Seneca Bowen said. “They finally see something happen. We’ve had a lot of failed starts over the years. But now they see this, it’s real—there’s some pipes in the ground, and it’s a reality to our people.”

Of past economic development efforts, Mr. Williams said, “It’s like we go to the door, get to the door but don’t go on the other side.” The current Council of Trustees, continuing the work of the previous one, “just went right through the door.”

The erection of the two billboards in the Hamptons is a national story in the Native American community, said Mr. Gumbs, who is a regional vice president of the National Congress of American Indians: “Indian Country is watching us right now, to see how we handle this situation.”

Tribal officials say that despite concerns from local officials, and possible action from the state, they are confident that the law is on their side, and they are exempt not just from town restrictions, but also state and even federal highway rules, from which tribal lands are specifically exempt. The tribe has gone so far as to tell Southampton Town not to repeat an earlier mistake, sending an employee onto tribal lands to issue a stop-work order. Next time, they say, the town representative will be arrested for trespassing.

Mr. Polite acknowledged there still could be a fight over this latest plan to bring the tribe a taste of the prosperity it can see all around from its ancestral lands.

“Given our history, and the historical trauma, we’re never surprised if tomorrow the town or the state files an injunction.” He added, “But we’re damned prepared for it.”

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