Tucked away along a waterway in Mastic, Long Island is Poospatuck, the smallest Indian reservation in New York State. It means “Where the water meets” and is home to 400 enrolled members of the Unkechaug tribe of Native Americans. It’s difficult to discern where exactly the reservation begins and ends. There are no visible signs to guide your way, no glow from a towering casino to mark the spot. Once you happen upon Poospatuck, however, there’s no mistaking you have arrived.
Large billboards advertising native-brand cigarettes adorn the façades of several homes converted to tobacco shops and traffic moves briskly in and out of parking areas. People are finding their way here for one reason only: cheap cigarettes.
Harry Wallace is the elected chief of the Unkechaug Nation who has found himself at the center of one of the largest controversies facing Indian nations today. He is also the owner of Poospatuck Smoke Shop, a bustling retail enterprise nestled in a wooded area deep within the reservation. Hanging boldly from the deck of the quaint wood shop on Wallace’s property is a sign that reads “Sovereignty Yes, Taxes No.”
Behind the shop is an office where Wallace conducts the business of his enterprise and the tribe. On the right side of the office is a wall of legal books that remind visitors that Wallace is not just an entrepreneur but a lawyer, a skill that has proven vital to the survival of Poospatuck. As I enter, he is talking to his staff and admits to being slightly irritable due to a strict diet and having recently kicked the caffeine habit.
“I’m trying to take care of my health,” he says.
Wallace was recently diagnosed with diabetes, one of the most common diseases plaguing Native Americans. This affliction makes him a statistic. Harry Wallace hates being a statistic.
Born in Flushing, Queens, Wallace lived there until his grandmother’s house burned down, forcing his family to move to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As a kid he would make frequent trips to Poospatuck and recalls a beautiful place.
“People built their own homes and kept the powwow grounds in good shape,” he remembers. “They had socials and there was this old dock with rowboats and you could actually swim in the river.”
In the early ’70s, Wallace got what was then a rare opportunity for a financially supported college education at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. This chapter in his life would change him forever and connect him with his heritage in a way he never conceived of before.
As it turns out, the Dartmouth years provided as much education as they did turbulence, as Wallace was at times confronted with blatant racism. “I ran into a conflict the first day I got there,” he laughs, recollecting a fight stemming from a racist comment made by a football player.
After college, Wallace moved back to Brooklyn to start a family and received his law degree from New York Law School. He began practicing law in New York City in 1983, which he did for nearly 10 years before returning to Poospatuck.
“My mother asked me to,” shrugs Wallace. “She said, ‘We need your help to take care of our land.’”
Upon his return he describes finding only “desolation.”
Gone were the pristine waters of his youth, sullied, he says, by industry and the refuse from duck farms at the mouth of the canal that Poospatuck lies adjacent to. The shellfish were gone and many of the residents who had existed on a marine economy had fallen into abject poverty; not an unfamiliar condition on reservation land throughout the country. Time and natural resources had run out for the inhabitants of this tiny reservation until the most unlikely of scenarios provided a dubious light at the end of a dark tunnel.
“It’s cigarettes, man.”
Because so many states have driven up the cost of cigarettes due to tax levies, they are cheaper to purchase from retailers on Indian reservations who don’t recognize government taxes on retail tobacco. The disparity has led to an economic boon that is creating newfound wealth and generating badly needed funds in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of the country.
But not everyone is happy about the burgeoning success of Native Americans. Many state and federal elected officials feel as though they are being cheated out of sorely needed tax dollars and anti-cancer advocates claim that tobacco consumption hasn’t decreased as a result of taxes; demand has merely shifted toward the unregulated Indian marketplace. Ironically, the biggest threat to the native cigarette industry may actually be from the cigarette companies themselves.
With the Great Recession as the backdrop to this unfolding drama, the stage is set for a David versus Goliath battle between Indian Country, the US government and Big Tobacco.
The price disparity between cigarettes available from reservations and traditional American-based retailers is at an all-time high. A carton of Marlboro cigarettes, the most popular brand in America, will run the consumer as much as $95 in New York City (NYC), where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has initiated an all-out war on smoking. The same carton costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $43 at a Native American-owned smoke shop on reservation land. This is the result of so-called “sin taxes” applied by state and local governments who use the additional tax to balance budgets and discourage consumption for public health reasons. While retailers and local municipalities have cried foul for several years about the inequity of cigarette pricing, it wasn’t until recently that these cries reached a fever pitch.
But the rise of the Native American tobacco entrepreneur has also contributed positively to the overall economic conditions on some reservation territories. The burgeoning Indian cigarette trade is having the ironic effect of creating tribe-funded public welfare systems that address health issues such as diabetes, drug addiction and heart disease that have crippled Native Americans.