Monuments and statues in at least four U.S. cities have been toppled or graffitied with the words “land back” this week. “Land back” is a movement for indigenous sovereignty, and these actions occurred during the week of Thanksgiving, which many Native Americans call the National Day of Mourning.
Along the southern shore of Long Island, the Shinnecock Nation are trying to protect their sovereign land, located in the town of Southampton, New York. The Shinnecock are surrounded by wealth, but roughly 60% of the population lives below the poverty line.
For weeks, members of the tribe camped out in the cold, protesting along Sunrise Highway, the only road into the Hamptons. The protest, called Sovereignty Camp 2020, ended on Nov. 26, Thanksgiving Day. The Warriors of the Sunrise — a group of Indigenous Shinnecock women and their allies — organized the demonstration.
“It was an extreme experience,” says Tela Troge, a lawyer representing the Shinnecock Nation who participated in the protest. “We were under a tornado watch one day. We had bad storms that tore apart the camp some nights. But at the same time, it really was a beautiful experience because we had so many supporters come to visit the camp and we were able to build really strong alliances.”
The demonstration was, on the surface at least, about an electronic billboard on the side of Sunrise Highway. New York state has a lawsuit against the sign, and it’s one of two large signs the tribe is building along the highway.
The billboard — which members of the Shinnecock Nation call a monument — is 61-feet tall. It sits at the entrance to the Hamptons.
“A lot of people aren't even aware that there is a Native tribe living in the Hamptons,” she says. “The education system in this country has completely failed to educate people about not only the history of Native people but the continued existence of Native people.”
Onlookers can’t miss the massive sign, she says. It stands as “a testament to the Shinnecock Nation's continued existence and the fact that once you drive past the sign, you're entering Shinnecock territory,” Troge says.
The monument has also helped the Shinnecock Nation raise revenue as it has grappled with food insecurity and economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jay Schneiderman, the town supervisor for Southampton, declined to speak to Here & Now about the controversy over the monument, but he told the New York Times in May of last year that it was “clearly out of character” for the neighborhood.
“All of their overdevelopment of our homelands is really what's out of character,” Troge says.
The coronavirus pandemic prompted a “mass exodus,” Troge says, of people from Manhattan into the Hamptons and homes that they had previously used as second properties.
Troge says because the town of Southampton isn’t hooked up to wastewater treatment, the increase in population, and thus septic usage, is having a “devastating, detrimental effect on the environment.”
“For the most part, our land here is completely vacant except for this monument, which has an extraordinarily small footprint,” Troge says.
In 1703, the Shinnecock Nation signed a 1,000-year lease for 3,500 acres with Southampton. Today, the Shinnecock Nation has two territories, including the 80-acre territory where Sovereignty Camp 2020 is located.
That territory is bisected by Sunrise Highway, which the State of New York built on Shinnecock land in 1959 to make the drive to Montauk easier for summer vacationers. The other Shinnecock territory is about 800 acres, and it’s where most Shinnecock people live today.
Ultimately, Troge says, the town and the wider U.S. population should engage in a “process of truth and reconciliation” to help the Shinnecock Nation heal and move forward.
“It’s not about the sign. None of this is about the sign,” she says. “One of the beautiful things about Sovereignty Camp is that when people stopped by and really got to hear our history and really start questioning things, I mean, it really leaves you with no opportunity but to side with us.”
This segment aired on November 27, 2020.