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Smoking Mad

As Suffolk Legislature Votes to Tax Indian Cigerette Sales, A Battle Grows

In the years after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a popular legend grew. General Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander in chief of the Japanese naval fleet, was quoted as saying, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant,” referring to the fact that the surprise attack had pushed America into world war. And while Pearl Harbor, 1941, may be a great distance from Suffolk County, 2008, Yamamoto’s sentiment is every bit as valid. So when the Suffolk County Legislature voted 17-1 on Dec. 16 to join New York City and sue local Indian reservations for sales tax generated by tobacco sales, the quote seemed to have a new life, as members of Native American tribes descended upon the legislature in Hauppauge to protest the move.
“We know that if we cave on the taxation issue, you are coming for our land next. We have learned our lesson,” said Harry Wallace, Chief of the Unkechaug Indian Nation before the legislature’s vote. The Unkechaug operate on the Poospatuck Indian Reservation in Mastic.
Bill 2029, sponsored by Leg. Lou D’Amaro (D-Huntington Station), piggybacks on a recent decision by New York City to sue Indian reservations for past and current sales tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products.
D’Amaro maintains that the several U.S. courts, including the Supreme Court, have found in favor of local governments over Indian nations fighting over uncollected cigarette taxes. According to D’Amaro, the law states that only “tribal members who reside on the reservation, and purchase cigarettes for their own personal use and consumption, are exempt from taxation, in recognition of the tribe’s status as a sovereign nation.”
Curiously, the bill only targets the Poospatuck reservation, which has about 275 residents, according to Wallace. The bill does not target the Shinnecock reservation in Southampton because, according to Leg. Brian Beedenbender (D-Centereach), the Poospatuck move many more cigarettes. Leg. Kate Browning (WF-Mastic) said that the legislature would look into whether Shinnecock collects taxes on its cigarette sales. Browning joined 16 other legislators in voting for the bill. The lone no vote came from Leg. Ricardo Montano (D-Brentwood).
D’Amaro maintains that there is no way all of the cigarettes purchased by the Poospatuck are meant for the members. In fact, the actual resolution includes the following: “The Smoke Shops located on the Poospatuck Reservation, which has 279 resident members, collectively purchased 10 million cartons of cigarettes in 2007 for resale.  If they were purchased for resale only to Native American resident-members of the Poospatuck Indian Reservation, exclusively for their own personal consumption, each man, woman and child resident-member of the Reservation would have to smoke 960 packs of cigarettes a day.”
Wallace contends that the laws of the City of New York, New York State or Suffolk County do not apply because the reservations are sovereign nations.
Suffolk’s vote was not the only move against local Indian tribes this week. New York State Governor David A. Paterson signed a bill Dec. 15 that would block the sale of tax-free cigarettes on Indian reservations throughout the state. The law is expected to go into effect in Feb., 2009. Paterson is hoping the additional revenue will help close the $14 billion budget gap the state is facing.
Wallace says lawmakers should be ready for a fight. “I don’t think they know what they’re getting into,” said Wallace. “I think they were sold a bridge in Brooklyn. They are going to find us a formidable opponent.”
Janine Tinsely-Roe, founder and executive director of the Bellport-based Shinnecock-Sewanhaka Society proposed a collaborative effort through establishing an Indian relations commission.
“We ask that the future actions that could have affect on our traditional and cultural ways of trade and marketing be addressed by way of establishing a bureau of communications between all parties involved,” said Tinsely-Roe at the legislature.
Either way, the battle lines have been drawn.

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