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Native American Cigarette Industry is Being Crushed

Government and Big Tobacco make Native Americans the low man on the totem pole


The stunning growth of the Indian tobacco trade has drawn the ire of some powerful people and corporations, and together they are collaborating with remarkable efficiency to wage an epic political and economic war against Native American tribes. The cast of characters involved in the battle is like something out of the movie The Insider. Senators, governors, congressmen and women, local politicians, the U.S. Postal Service, Homeland Security and the mayor of Gotham are all playing key roles in targeting the native Indian tobacco trade. But it is Big Tobacco that is controlling the game and moving these powerful interests around the chess board like a master.

Don’t Tread on Us

New York State (NYS) is ground zero for the attack on the native cigarette trade. On one end of the spectrum, the 55-acre Poospatuck reservation is being called a bootlegger’s paradise and is a defendant in several high-profile lawsuits from neighboring municipalities. At the other end is this highly organized and extremely well-funded Seneca Nation, located on three territories in upstate New York. If Poospatuck is a minor league ball team in this scenario, then the Seneca Nation is the New York Yankees. Both tribes are fighting enormous, yet entirely different, political battles.

Unkechaug Chief Harry Wallace is spearheading the fight to save the native cigarette trade on the Poospatuck Reservation


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Despite the differences in size and resources, both nations cite the same reason for why the US government, at any level, is forbidden from interceding in their affairs: sovereignty. To understand sovereignty, it is helpful to think of these nations not as territories within US borders, but as geographically and politically independent nations far away. In every instance the theory of sovereignty is invoked by Native Americans, imagine it being invoked by leaders of small nations abroad instead of in your backyard.

The economic extremes that Poospatuck and Seneca Nation represent are as divergent as their take on the nature of sovereignty and the legal rights associated with it. For its part, Poospatuck is not federally recognized as a reservation, but it is recognized by NYS. Chief Wallace of Poospatuck believes that the fact the Unkechaug never sought federal recognition is perhaps an even greater claim of sovereignty than any agreement could possibly provide.

“The BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] cannot confer sovereignty,” scoffs Wallace. “All it was, all it is and continues to be, is an agency that manages funds. This whole notion of sovereignty was created as fiction during the Nixon administration. You cannot confer sovereignty, you can only recognize it.”

Conversely, the Seneca believe their sovereign rights are superior to other tribes who are federally recognized because Seneca territories in western New York are protected by what is known colloquially as the Buffalo Creek Treaty of 1842. The treaty explicitly states that the “lands of the Seneca Indians, within the State of New York” are protected from “all taxes.” For the Seneca people this is impenetrable language and the basis of their claim of total sovereignty and independence.

But as one quickly learns from reporting on Indian issues, nothing is absolute in Indian Country.

Chief Wallace believes that the Seneca stance may have deleterious repercussions on Poospatuck’s assertion of sovereignty. “When we negotiated with the state in the past we had a unified coalition with the League of First Nations,” says Wallace. “Most of the Indian Nations were a part of that coalition. That unified front is not there today.”

Robert Odawi Porter, the senior policy advisor and counsel to the Seneca Nation, offers a slightly different viewpoint. “We’re still united with other nations in the state but our constitutional government is what sets us apart. We’re a stronger and more functional government.” Then he carefully adds, “There are times that our advocacy is common.”

Tribal members from all over New York gather at the State Senate hearing at Manhattan Community College.

Standing together at this time may be more important than ever before, as impending federal laws and mounting legal challenges against these nations have everyone running for cover, leaving the tribes to defend their economic rights on their own. Even a representative from the New York Civil Liberties Union said that Native American issues are “not our area of expertise” and declined to comment on the issue.

As to why no organizations or individuals are likely to come to their defense, it’s simple. As Chief Wallace says, “It’s cigarettes, man.”

The Long and Winding Trail

Because cigarettes have such a deservedly unsympathetic role in modern society, it’s no wonder there is little support for any cigarette retailers. Questions of fairness and free enterprise fly out the window due to the simple fact that cigarettes kill people. Even still, Wallace is incredulous at the attack on the Native American smoke trade for reasons beyond the economic peril it places them in.

“They’re the ones that turned a Native American sacrament into a carcinogen,” he says in disgust.

When America declared itself free, indigenous people were herded like animals onto isolated areas of the burgeoning nation. Stretches of remote desert lands and parcels nestled in the secluded woodland areas became homesteads for Native Americans. Their numbers were decimated and the survivors were humiliated. Yet, in the beginning, there was still food to eat and some freedom to move about. But the influx just kept coming.

Says Porter: “Personally I don’t think it sunk in with our people that the usage of our land was so severely restricted. We weren’t used to lines being drawn on a map.”

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