Since the Shinnecock Indian Nation erected an electronic billboard on its sovereign territory in Hampton Bays in late spring, the tribe has drawn both support from national organizations like the National Congress of American Indians and grief from local and state detractors.
A week before the nation erected the illuminated sign — which we call a “monument” — along Sunrise Highway, local motel owner and Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman opposed it, and he was not alone. Many of the thousands heading east this apple- and pumpkin-picking season may have seen the sign, which underscores a new phase in the ongoing efforts by Shinnecocks to assert their rights as a federally recognized tribe on a reservation with limited economic development potential.
The sign, which runs paid local ads, is really part of an American tradition: to join the capitalist majority, to create economic self-reliance and be entrepreneurial — an American ideal. Yet historically minority efforts to create economic opportunity often have been thwarted by government and the public, all while many Americans complain about Indians’ reliance on social services.
The entirety of the sign, now part of a lawsuit in state Supreme Court, is on our sovereign land. Sovereignty — worth remembering during Native American Heritage Month — is intended to allow tribes to manage and control their own affairs, and operate without intrusion or oversight in legal and business affairs by local, state or federal governments. Still, many tribes throughout the country, including the Shinnecock, no longer have open rights to their original territories or the natural resources within them.
The East End towns and villages are the ancestral land of the Shinnecocks. We were here for centuries before the Europeans settled the area in the 1600s, and we are still here fighting for equality.
The Village and the Town of Southampton host fast-food chain restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King and Dunkin’, which are arguably the greatest indicators of mainstream America in any small community. Where was the great outrage when their plastic signs of American capitalism arrived amid the natural beauty of the East End? Or when the local driving range opened years ago, keeping its bright lights on late into the night, visible for miles, while the Shinnecock reservation’s roads have no streetlights? And yet when the original people of these lands erect a sign, it is the Indian who is criticized.
For centuries, the Shinnecock people have been known by our surrounding tribes as the People of the Stoney Shore. Shinnecocks have kept a tenacious relationship with those we refer to as our sister tribes all along the Eastern Seaboard. These tribes include the Montauk, Unkechaug, Setelacott, Matinencock, Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot, Narragansett, Nipmuc and Wampanoag tribes.
Towns that were established between 1621 and 1657 surround all these tribes, like ours. Current and developing homes of these towns are founded on the wealth of the very first settlements of this country.
With all the focus in our country on immigration and xenophobia in the past few years, it’s ironic that the descendants of those who came here and took our land by force are reworking laws regarding immigration and capitalism. Perhaps only some people are allowed to get ahead?
Chenae Bullock and Alli Hunter Joseph are Shinnecock Indian Nation tribal members. Bullock is an activist and entrepreneur. Joseph is a journalist and producer of “Conscience Point,” a documentary on Shinnecock land rights.