The first of two electronic billboards along Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays was made operational in time for Memorial Day weekend. Green-lighted by the Shinnecock Indian Nation, they were described in the tribal trustees’ news blitz as a source of much-needed economic development. They may turn out to be more of a miscalculation than an asset.
Many residents, officials, as well as the New York State Department of Transportation, have objected. Last week, a State Supreme Court justice agreed to a stop-work order while the question of whether the nation has the legal right to the billboards is being considered in court.
The tribe’s framing of the billboards as monuments was disingenuous, as they were clearly a business decision. Also less than plausible was a repeated official statement that the income from advertising was sorely needed.
How the billboards will address the economic disparity between Shinnecock Reservation residents and others on the South Fork was not explained. This is a region where many jobs go unfilled and professional and trade workers travel from far away to get to South Fork jobs. Opportunities to make a decent living, it seems, are not lacking. Nor was it immediately clear who put up the money to have the towering structures and LED screens installed.
The message of the billboards is mixed — and problematic. On one hand, as one tribal official said, they make it impossible to overlook the Shinnecocks and the tribe’s needs. On the other, they may reinforce unfair stereotypes.
If a court does indeed determine that the land on which the billboards sit is tribal and outside the state’s jurisdiction, so be it. But what these inarguably ugly eyesores will accomplish in the end is an open question. Our worry is that they will deepen a rift between the Shinnecock Nation and nonnative communities — that is the greatest risk of all.