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A Vacation Enclave in the Hamptons, Two 61-Foot Billboards, and an Endless Fight for Tribal Sovereignty

A state lawsuit against the Shinnecock Indian Nation tells a much bigger story about the forces stacked against Native self-determination.


Past a certain point east, Sunrise Highway is a quiet drive in November. Strip malls, a hollowed-out Chuck E. Cheese, and a dwindling number of other cars making the commute back to the farthest reaches of Long Island are the only things to keep you company on the drive out. If you’re coming from the city, and you’re lucky with traffic, it’s about two hours until you finally see it—the 61-foot-tall reminder, standing at the gateway to the McMansion-filled Hamptons, that you are in fact on Native land.

Outfitted with the seal of the Shinnecock Indian Nation and a digital billboard—a rotating set of messages, from Don’t Text and Drive to the Shinnecock Lobster Factory—the monument stands on the eastern side of Sunrise Highway and at the center of a lawsuit being pursued against the tribe by New York Attorney General Letitia James on behalf of the state Department of Transportation. If you live in New York and check the news from time to time, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about it.

Constructed by the Nation in 2019 for the dual purposes of generating revenue and marking its sovereign land, the monument-billboard is one of two being built by the tribe. Its plans were publicly opposed by the neighboring Town of Southampton’s elected officials, namely Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who told The New York Times last May that it was “clearly out of character” for his community that just happens to include one of the world’s ritziest golf clubs, built atop Shinnecock graves. “The summer crowd comes here to escape the metropolis, only to find this urban element at the gateway to the Hamptons,” he said.

The first monument quickly became the subject of a stop-work order from the DOT, which the Shinnecock Nation countered. The DOT then filed a lawsuit to stop the second monument’s construction, which began this spring. The case features two baseline claims: First, the state says that the structures would pose a risk if they fell and blocked the highway during a coastal evacuation, and, much more controversially, it is seeking to establish that neither of the monuments is on Shinnecock land.

This is a story about two billboards and angry rich people in big houses, yes. It is also, though, more substantially, about generations of land theft, broken treaties, and trust responsibilities—and one of the bluest states in the nation paying shallow lip service to tribal sovereignty while standing in its way.

Before one can really grasp the state’s claims and its insistence on using tax dollars to fight the Shinnecock, it’s important to understand that there is no way to view the legal fight over this monument in a vacuum. This struggle against New York and Southampton for Shinnecock economic independence is not separate from those that preceded it, nor will it be unique from the ones that inevitably follow. The monument fight is the latest iteration of Shinnecock people having to spend crucial funds and hours defending their basic sovereignty and economic autonomy. And standing on the front lines, issuing that full-throated reminder to accompany the monument, are the Warriors of the Sunrise.

The Warriors are a group of Shinnecock women, among them Margo Thunderbird, Tela Troge, Becky Genia, and Jennifer E. Cuffee-Wilson, all of whom helped establish Sovereignty Camp 2020, an encampment on the northern side of Sunrise Highway, across from the constructed monument. With the aid of groups like the Long Island Progressive Coalition and the Red Nation, the camp was established on October 31 by the Warriors as a physical rejection of New York’s purported claim to the Westwoods, the land that the camp and the monument rest on.

The camp entrance is marked by an R.V. with a Warriors flag hanging from its side. Signs at the edge of the woods offer stern reminders that those without a negative Covid-19 test are barred from entering. A white supplies tent is situated at the northern end of camp, outfitted with a small library of Indigenous literature and enough food to get the group through the end of the month. A dozen or so tents are spread throughout the leaf-covered ground. And at the heart of it all is the Sovereignty Camp fire. It was lit on Halloween and hasn’t died yet. Every person at the camp takes turns splitting logs, poking the kindling with a well-worn rake, and adding pieces as needed. Some nights, they take shifts keeping it alive; on others, a Shinnecock citizen from the rez will drive over between midnight and 6 a.m. to relieve the group. While the state may continue to argue it on legal terms, there is little room for doubt when it comes to who watches over this land.

The Westwoods have long been home to the Nation, centuries before New York State or the Town of Southampton. The Shinnecock have operated their government as others formed around them, even as it took until 2010 for the federal government to recognize them as a tribe. When I spoke with Thunderbird, she told me of the recognition process, “We didn’t really need it: We were already sovereign, whether they said it or not.” And since the earliest days of colonization, the Shinnecock have used their sovereignty to act as good neighbors.

“We were the ones who welcomed them,” Cuffee-Wilson, a Shinnecock elder, said of Southampton, which was founded in the 1640s. “We helped them with food. We helped them with clothing. We helped them with housing—we even gave land for them. And in turn, we get treated like shit.”

“Well, now they’ve gotten to a generation where we’re not taking it anymore.”

The monuments were designed to drive revenue for the Nation. One thing that has consistently come up in coverage of the Shinnecock monuments is the fact that roughly 60 percent of the tribe lives below the federal poverty line. There is crucial context that comes with statistics like these. Neither the Shinnecock nor any other Indigenous community is inherently prone to poverty. These are conditions that are mired in the paternalistic attitude bred by colonization, helping to foster a belief held by the state and town that they should be able to dictate how the tribe acts. It also erases the resilience and mutual care offered among tribal citizens. Cuffee-Wilson, outfitted with a black “Make America Native Again” ball cap, said that after she experienced a rough patch last winter, Troge, her niece, helped organize a fundraiser to move her out of a tent and into a camper.

Each generation of Shinnecock citizens has had to deal with either Southampton or the state of New York trying to extend its hand into their business, acting out of a desire for more of the reservation’s valuable land. Since the Shinnecock Nation first signed a 1,000-year lease for 3,500 acres with Southampton in 1703, its reservation has been methodically whittled down to its current 800 acres.

In 1859, a group of Southampton investors worked to convince the state to break its lease with the Nation to develop the Shinnecock Hills area and extend the Long Island Railroad, using what tribal members say were forged and faked signatures to legally take the land. This stripped the tribe of its most valuable land, Shinnecock Hills, which was subsequently turned into the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and adjacent mansions.

In 1959, the state moved forward with the construction of Route 27, Sunrise Highway, through the Westwoods, using a highway easement to make the trip to Montauk easier for the region’s wealthy summer vacationers. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was New York cracking down on Shinnecock citizen Jonathan Smith’s smoke shop, upset because he was able to sell cartons of cigarettes on the rez without imposing a state tobacco tax. In the early 2000s, it was the Nimby townsfolk raising hell about a proposed bingo hall, with the state fighting in the courts to nix the Nation’s proposed casino. And now, in 2020, the town and the state, yet again, have taken issue with the Shinnecock Nation’s latest attempt to generate revenue and enforce its sovereignty.

“One reason why they don’t want us to have this is because as soon as you come down Sunrise Highway and you see these two monuments up there, with the Shinnecock symbol, it’s saying to you: You are entering Shinnecock territory, you are not entering the Town of Southampton,” Cuffee-Wilson said. “And they don’t want to struggle with that, because once that gets out there, then they have to start being honest about their town and how it was founded. It’s a gloomy sleep, I know. That is a painful thing. But guess what: Y’all need to get over it.”

State Supreme Court Judge Sanford Neil Berland heard the state’s case in May, writing that the monuments “pose none of the disruptive consequences” and “no unacceptable safety risk,” as claimed by the DOT. While Berland did not entirely dismiss the state’s lawsuit, as the tribe hoped, he concluded, “Ultimately, the burden will be upon the state and town plaintiffs to refute the defendants’ contention that the nation has sovereign control over the Westwoods property. On the current record, it is impossible to conclude that the plaintiffs will succeed in doing so.” A DOT spokesperson declined my request for comment “due to pending litigation,” and Attorney General James’s office twice declined to answer questions about why it is pursuing the case for the DOT, with a spokesperson telling The New Republic, “Our office allows those we’re representing to speak on the record on these matters.”

One of the main firekeepers for my visit was a Shinnecock man named Ricardo. He never seemed to truly sit still. He was constantly circling the pit, nudging pieces just so, a frenetic but controlled pace to his method. “I’ve been learning how to do this for 45 years, since I was five,” he said, using the rake to prop up a log to let the embers breathe better. As the sun dipped down beneath the trees and a sliver of the moon poked through the emptied branches, Ricardo took a seat and admired what was going on three hours of perfecting the crackling fire. He lit a cig and held a soda in his hands. “It’s constant work,” he told me. “But you gotta do it. You just got to.”

Sovereignty is constant work, too. It isn’t easy (or cheap); the state’s offenses never seem to end; and yet, maybe now more than ever, it is entirely necessary to ensure that the next generation of Shinnecock community members can continue to hold onto the land that their ancestors stewarded for generations. The Warriors are not special in this sense. They’re just taking on the work that’s been placed before them, just as the Shinnecock who came before them did. After all, someone has to do it.