June 21, 2006

Native Americans Rally For Economic Freedom

Carrying signs that read "Sovereignty Yes, Sales Tax, No!" over 100 Native Americans shut down Montauk Highway in Southampton for a short time last week as they marched during a rally to support a fledgling grassroots movement that aims to protect the Indian Nations' right to sell tax-free products.

Last Wednesday members of the Native American Business Alliance of Long Island caravanned from the Unkechaug Pow-wow Grounds in Mastic to the Shinnecock territory in Southampton to stand strong against outside forces threatening their economy.

"This is not about taxes on cigarettes," said Unkechaug tribal chief Harry Wallace. "It's about protecting a way of life, and our economy, so our people can survive into the next millennium."

Native American businesses have seen their rights challenged in recent months. Last year, the state legislature mandated a provision requiring a tax be collected on cigarettes sold by Indians to non-Indians.

The tax would be collected from wholesale operations before the products are shipped to small mom-and-pop shops such as those that dot Montauk Highway in Southampton and depend upon the sale of tax-free cigarettes to survive.

Governor George Pataki's tax department has said that it would not enforce the new regulations because he was working on negotiating a one-year delay.

Meanwhile, in February, Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, running to replace Pataki in the gubernatorial race, announced that wholesalers who continued to supply cigarettes without a tax stamp to Native American merchants could lose their licenses.

And, claims Wallace, it is the multi-million dollar backers of Spitzer's campaign who are fueling the flames of Spitzer's fire on the issue.

With over 5000 supporters so far, the NABA is demanding new legislation be enacted to rescind the actions of politicians and special interest groups who have passed legislation and filed lawsuits that threaten to terminate treaties protecting the right of New York tribes to sell tax-free products on their own territories.

The NABA is also urging chain and convenience stores to drop their lawsuits against small Indian smoke shops.

As members of the Tuscarora, Seneca, Onendega, Cayuga, Mohawk, Pequot, Narragansett, and other nations met up outside Raindrop's Quick Stop on Montauk Highway after the march, they spoke with passion about why they'd chosen to stand up for their inherent rights.

Yasmine Williams, who lives on the Shinnecock Reservation, works at Southampton Hospital and volunteers for a homework program for Native American children, agreed that the rally was a reflection of years of oppression: "It's not just a cigarette issue," she said. "Basically, the government is trying to rule what's rightfully ours as a sovereign nation . . . We're not just going to lie down and allow them to do it."

And, added Williams, taxation on cigarettes could open the floodgates of change: "If they can begin to tax businesses, next they could try to tax residential homes."

Lance Gumbs, tribal chairman of the Shinnecock nation, said tobacco has always played an integral role in Native American culture and has most recently fueled the economy of the sovereign nation. "It has truly been a gift," he said. "Now we have those who wish to take this away from us. This is not about cigarette sales. This is not about taxation. This is about our inherent rights as Native Americans, the first people of the land."

Gumbs said he'd had a conversation that day with New York State Police who'd asked the Native Americans to stand on one side of the white line and said that marching would impede traffic. "We're going to make a statement here today," said Gumbs. "We're going to shut down Montauk Highway. It may be only a small piece of the highway, but it's the small piece that runs in front of our land."

Gumbs recalled the expression "use it or lose it" and said, "If you don't use sovereign rights, you lose them."

Another question, said Gumbs, is where money marked for the state tax department would go. "We receive no benefit from that sales tax. Wasn't the Boston Tea Party about taxation without representation? That's what they're trying to do to us."

Rick Shavoy, who rowed to the rally during his Row for a Cure stint, looked back in history and said King Charles II gave land to the Duke of York, land that was not his to give and which belonged to Native Americans: "Every real estate transaction that's taken place since 1664 has been based on an illegal transaction."

And, Native Americans claim, the travesty continues today as politicians seek action that would translate into a crippling loss of revenue for New York tribes: "The new genocide is taking away our economic independence," said Gumbs.

Rebecca Genia, president of the NABA, agreed: "The politicians in Albany need to visit native businesses so they can see that executing this legislation will cripple the economy of New York Tribes."

Income from smoke shops helps tribes finance schools, churches, housing, and playground and provide employment opportunities and health-care and retirement benefits, said tribal members.

Gumbs said the rally was the first of many endeavors the tribes would be undertaking to assert their rights: "We're going to tell legislators, 'You will not control us. We will not be subservient to you.' We will be economically independent at any cost."Wallace agreed: "Poverty is not an option."

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