“Our unborn grandchildren will look back at our era and be either thankful for our efforts or they will never speak our names as their ancestors, because of when we failed to live up to our responsibility. The choice is up to us today. What legacy do we leave behind us forever?”
These were the words spoken recently at a Longhouse located on the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory (also known as the St. Regis Indian Reservation), in response to ongoing friction between federal and state tax enforcement agencies, and native territory businesses.
The strong words were spoken by Kakwirakeron (Ga-Gwe-La-Gale-u), a member of the Bear Clan of the Kanienkehaka Kaianerehkowa Kanonhsesne. A veteran social activist within the People of the Way of the Longhouse, Kakwirakeron has taken part in a number of land rights demonstrations in his seven decades of life on Turtle Island. “Our existence as Onkwehonweh (original people) is due to our will to survive. We have survived.”
His words rang through the crowded meeting hall that day. In between spoonfuls of white corn soup, Kakwirakeron told me that he was a grandfather 58 times over, and a great-grandfather of 27. “My family keeps growing, and they need to eat. We are all so fortunate for all of them.”
Of particular concern to the retired ironworker was the plight of his son, Arthur “Sugar” Montour, Jr. The company owned by his son has been named in a lawsuit by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, alleging his cigarette distribution enterprise, Native Wholesale Supply of Perrysburg, New York, has deprived the third-largest American state of cigarette tax stamp revenue. The Montours counter that the company is Native American owner-operated, and a family business.
“Where once our people handled tobacco as a medicine and trade good, now we are chased ragged by an American government with a short memory of the historic trade routes of native to native trade. Our enjoyment of the unborn generation’s land is foresworn. We are obligated to keep it intact and accessible to them,” a speaker stated on the Longhouse floor, as Kakwirakeron finished his meal.
Overtaking the concerns of this Longhouse meeting today; more was in play. Amidst this ripple in Indian country today, a bigger strategy was enveloping the vaunted Red Road, like a soupy fog across parts unknown.
United States government agencies outposted near Iroquois communities have deferred to New York State tax codes. By going “all-in” on enforcement of state tobacco revenue tax stamp affixation, the battle lines have been set. The chalk is on the field.
In 2003, in Seneca County, New York, this challenge was thrown down. A statement was released by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) for clarity. “They are required to pay the state tax; they are not exempt from anything like that,” said Cynthia Little, ATF Tobacco Unit supervisor in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Sugar Montour feels differently about that perspective. Printed references to a 2008 Cayuga Nation rally that Mr. Montour spoke at concerning state tobacco taxes summarize this mindset. “It’s not about being tax exempt, we are non-taxable. We are not under the thumb of the State of New York.”
So the die is cast. Northern District of New York U.S. Attorney Richard Hartunian in 2012 issued notice to advance prosecution on cigarette manufacturing taking place on the Akwesasne territory. Only a federal licensee will escape that scrutiny according to this broad mandate. Longhouse and possibly, tribally issued licenses, will be held to New York State tax stamp scrutiny. Both governments issue tax stamps in Akwesasne. Both business sectors fund local community projects. Both governments hear the angst of their affected business captains after ATF letterhead correspondence is received, conveying tone-deaf warnings of commercial extinction, by the mail recipients. This is now a two-front conflict; not just a provincial one.
Simultaneously, across the stone’s throw “border” an ongoing Canadian tobacco interdiction effort has been bolstered, through the introduction of proposed minimum sentencing for tobacco tax evasion, as well as enhanced Royal Canadian Mounted Police manpower allocation. Fifty more red-jacketed “Mounties” will be set to the task of further ostracizing the far-flung businesses within modern-day Iroquoia.
The Canadian perspective parallels the American one. Steve Thomas, an elected Canadian Mohawk band councilor, responded to the narrow views, “the problem isn’t the people of Akwesasne, but the multitude of borders that dissect Akwesasne into two countries, two provinces and one state,” he stated.
Turtle Island’s historic trade routes invariably changed once Europeans, empowered by the doctrine of papal bulls, sought to usurp and disrupt Onkwehonweh alliances. The Two Row Wampum (Kaswentha) was invoked to maintain order and distinction amidst the treachery.
Unfortunate modern divisions gash these understandings.
Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War Two veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.