For the Iroquois Freewheeling Tobacco Era at the End

By Doug George-Kanentiio
News From Indian Country August 2010

The era of big time tobacco sales is coming to an end. There are simply too many forces now aligned against the Iroquois to win this fight. With the recent setbacks in the US courts, the resolve of New York State to tax the wholesalers and the complete failure of the Iroquois to come up with a cohesive, collective response it is clear the days of freewheeling tobacco are over.

It was in the early 1970’s when Bob Satiacum, a traditional leader of the Puyallup Nation in Washington State, took a page from the Iroquois book of political activism, decided that Native sovereignty had an economic component which could be converted into cash with the right ambition.

Satiacum took on the state. He not only sold tobacco but opened the first commercial bingo hall on Indian lands in the US.  Satiacum may have succeeded if he had run his operations as a collective but he wanted wealth and with that came corruption. He was indicted on various criminal charges by the US and died as a political refugee in Canada but his ideas took hold across the continent.

At Akwesasne the Mohawk Nation was approached in 1986 to issue licenses for the retail sales of tobacco. Many of the elders were concerned that we should not be involved in marketing this most sacred of plants with serious consequences should we decide to do so.

By no coincidence the issue of commercial gambling was also brought before the Nation in 1986. A committee was formed to investigate both these issues. This was expanded to include all petroleum products in conjunction with the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and the St. Regis Tribal Council.

We knew the prophecies which told of the problems we would encounter with gambling. We knew tobacco was killing hundreds of thousands and there was a spiritual and psychological residue. We knew all oil based products were plant and animal based and to release them from the earth, where they were placed by the Creator, would cause serious problems for all that lived on the surface.

We knew about the teachings of Skaniateriio, that the veil surrounding the earth would be torn, the planet would heat up and the great winds would come, bringing great destruction before upsetting the delicate balance of the earth itself.

But we knew that without effective controls based on compromise and reason these things would get the better of us and we would be overwhelmed by the greed and passion they would arouse. Without an effective policing agency, one which would exist in contrast to our ancestral customs, we could not hope to regulate this kind of commerce. None of the Nation leaders wanted a top heavy central government with cops, courts and jails. But what else could be done?

An appeal to reason was tried in December of 1986 when the three councils imposed a moratorium on the importation of tobacco products pending a resolution of the commerce issue with the retailers. Would they comply with the Nation’s tobacco regulations or not?  The decision by some was to defy any entity which tried to oversee this activity and, naturally, chaos and anarchy was the result. The Nation was not prepared to physically fight with its own people.

In 1997 the Mohawk Nation joined with the other members of the Haudenosaunee to negotiate a Trade and Commerce agreement which, despite the distortions and outright lies, would have established centralized control over tobacco. This would have meant a radical shift in terms of profits with the bulk going to the nations to underwrite social programs, economic diversity initiatives and government operations. Other goals were to secure fiscal independence from the US and Canada, eliminate smuggling and then terminate tobacco sales altogether.

The result was a series of staged protests organized by tobacco kingpins, the same ones who now wave the Haudenosaunee flag. The protests were enough to persuade NY Governor George Pataki to break his word and abandon the Commerce deal.

But that was then. Now there is tremendous pressure being exerted upon the Iroquois by the US, Canada and New York State. They will use increasing force to eliminate smuggling (as they call it) and will not hesitate to respond with aggression should they encounter resistance.

They will compel the retailers to pay sales taxes-and some have broken ranks and are already doing so. They are eager to bring the formidable military powers to bear against us. Just listen to the words, or watch the face, of US Department of Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano. Or the determination of NY Governor David Paterson, a man with nothing to lose.

Read the reports coming from the local and national media about Akwesasne and the Iroquois. The news is mostly negative which means there is not any sympathy for a Native people who, according to them, have now grown rich on the misery of others. No more “Indian plight” to exploit.

There is a slight possibility of salvaging our tax free status but it would require the retailers to go to their respective tribal and national leaders and agree to not only revive the 1997 Trade and Commerce Compact but to set a time to get out of the tobacco trade completely.

If not, who among us is willing to take to the barricades, their lives on the line, for the right to market this product of death?

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of Akwesasne Notes, a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association as well as a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian. He is the author of "Iroquois on Fire' and resides in Oneida Castle, NY.




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