Journey to Onondaga

This morning, I pulled off the exit from Route 81 for “Nedrow/Onondaga Nation Territory” in a gray haze and light rain. At the same time as I left the highway, I also left the sovereign state of New York and entered the sovereign territory of the Onondaga people. With me were four of my friends all of whom were from overseas (Colombia, India and Vietnam) and had an interest in getting outside of Syracuse for a bit.

I crossed the street at the bottom of the ramp and pulled into the parking lot for the Firekeepers Diner. The large restaurant was visible from the highway and I had always meant to make a stop but never found myself there until today. On a clear day, you can see the infamous, Route 81 billboard with one side that reads “We the Indigenous Peoples Own the Western Hemisphere” and the other, now painted over, had an anti-Albany diatribe on it.

The existence of these crudely painted billboards reminded me that this little patch of land is fundamentally different than the rest of New York. I, a white citizen of the United States am able to walk this state and more or less feel that I belong. But on Onondaga, I always have a nagging reminder that this land belongs to another people, another culture. Moreover, I remember that the rest of the state, where I tread with such comfort and ease, was once the same before it was stolen through violence and betrayal. It’s a thought that’s sat in the pit of my stomach all day.

Firekeepers is decent as far as diners go. The portions were absurdly large and cheap, though not of incredibly high quality; I reflected a bit on the ongoing battle with obesity and diabetes on the Reservation as I vainly attempted to eat three pancakes bigger than my head and thicker than my thumb. The atmosphere is homey and warm inside, though the aspect that struck me the most was one I don’t often think about: the smoking section.

New York, of course, banned indoor smoking several years ago, but the Onondaga (like all sovereign indigenous nations) are governed by their own set of laws. I don’t often leave Central New York and was taken back a bit as I walked through the large smoking section to the non-smoking room in the back.

Driving north along Route 11 from the Firekeepers we came to three buildings clustered at the edge of Onondaga Territory. One, with a large Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Flag on the roof was unlabeled, but I believe it is the factory that produces many of the cigarettes sold on the Nation. This factory is a product of an ongoing battle between the state of New York, the Haudenosaunee and the convenience store lobby in Albany.

Past the factory is a huge indoor lacrosse and hockey arena and beyond that the Smoke Shop. We pulled up to the Smoke Shop, a bustling place which included a drive-thru line. Inside, the walls were stacked to the ceiling with cheap cigarettes, loose tobacco and cigars (including Cubans… I wonder what the story behind them is). The draw is that New York cigarette taxes do not apply here. This is not a case of New York giving a “tax-exempt” status to the Onondaga out of charity, but because the laws of New York do not apply here.

The constant gripe amongst the anti-Indian community is that “Indians don’t pay taxes” or “Indians get special privileges” doesn’t understand that Indian nations have their own governments. They don’t pay New York taxes (provided they live and work on the Reservation) just as I don’t pay Onondaga or Canadian taxes. Indian “special privileges” (such as non-taxed cigarettes) are actually the rights of sovereign nations: the government of New York has decided to tax cigarettes and the government of Onondaga has decided not to.

The Smoke Shop sits at the center of the Onondaga economy, it funds health care, infrastructure, economic development, environmental activism and the basic governmental apparatus. For a people who on ethical and religious grounds forbid gambling and alcohol and who reject handouts from the Federal Government, the sale of tobacco is a deeply troubling, absolutely necessary lifeline.

This is a hot controversy, especially with Gov. Patterson seeking to cut budgets and find money anywhere possible. The State of New York has been seeking to stop smoke shops for years, recently arresting a woman returning home with a car full of cigarettes for not paying taxes.

Are there easy answers here? Should New York have the right to tax its own citizens buying products on another state’s territory? Should the Onondaga economy be based off of selling poison to their fellow Central New Yorkers? What responsibility do those of us who walk with ease upon the lands surrounding Onondaga have to right the wrongs of the past? Does anyone have the right to extinguish the economic foundation of a community, any community?

As I drove out of Onondaga, into Nedrow and back to Syracuse, I was unable to answer but I did know one thing. The citizens of Upstate New York and the Haudenosaunee League are neighbors and we share this beautiful land.

-by Jesse

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