Eric White of the Seneca Indian Tribe owns the Big Indian Smoke Shop in Irving, New York, and he along with a number of other native-owned businesses have been in an ongoing legal battle with the state of New York over taxes.
On March 15, a New York Judge issued a ruling which fined White $2.4 million for allegedly selling unstamped, untaxed cigarettes in 2012. White says that his business is entirely legal and that his products are not subject to state taxes because they are native brands that are being shipped from one reservation to another, meaning that this is native business that is not the government’s concern. White also says that he has been harassed by state police, who have illegally stopped and searched his vehicles.
Furthermore, the fines that were issued against White are three and a half times what the cigarettes were worth.
White filed a lawsuit against the state on the grounds that these fines violate Indian Law Section 6, which states “No taxes shall be assessed, for any purpose whatever, upon any Indian reservation in this state, so long as the land of such reservation shall remain the property of the nation, tribe or band occupying the same.”
State officials moved to dismiss the suit, saying Indian Law Section 6 and the Treaty of 1842 only apply to state taxation of land or real property.
To fight against this massive injustice, White is building his own exit ramp from the highway that leads directly to his business.
Paul Cambria, White’s attorney, says that he does not believe that the government has any right to tell him what to do on tribal lands.
“Eric is currently exploring the authority of the Thruway easements over his land… He feels the state is taking advantage of nation people….he believes there is no valid easement that the Thruway has over sovereign territory,” Cambria told WGRZ.
A spokesperson for the New York State Thruway Authority responded to the construction of the ramp in a statement, saying that, “The safety of motorists is paramount and we are looking into the matter to ensure the work does not interfere with the operation of the Thruway.”
The Seneca Nation was quick to distance themselves from White’s action, despite the fact that they understand his frustration with the state’s unfair taxation of native people.
“While we are aware of the activity being undertaken by an individual on the Cattaraugus Territory, the Seneca Nation has no role whatsoever in what is taking place. Although we know the reason for his actions, we look for a safe resolution addressing this situation,” a statement from the Seneca Nation read.
The Seneca Nation is instead attempting to fight these battles in the courts. Last month, the Seneca Nation filed a lawsuit against the state of New York for building a toll road on tribal lands, in the same region that this smoke shop is located.
“After decades of seeing our property invaded without authorization from the federal government that is required to protect our Native land, we find it necessary to take legal action against these State officials. We are not seeking to cause any disruption, but rather to ensure that the New York State authorities comply with federal law and gain approval from the Department of Interior for the Thruway that encroaches on 300 acres of land that has belonged to the Nation and our ancestors for generations,” Seneca Nation President Todd Gates said after the lawsuit was filed.
Many years after this land was stolen by the US government, they continue to persecute native groups. In the state of New York, where many people don’t even realize that native lands exist, the US government is still taxing these people and unjustly taking their land.