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The Smoke-Shop Signals of the Unkechaug

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The smoke-shop main drag on the Poospatuck reservation in Mastic.  

“Up until recently, the role of chief was more of a spokesperson and a leader in ceremonies, in powwows and June meetings and such,” Wallace said. But that was before the cigarette trade, which has burgeoned as the taxes charged by the state and the city—$2.75 per pack to the state; $1.50 to the city—have driven people to stock up on tax-free Camel Lights in Poospatuck country.

Along with revenue, the cigarette business has also occasioned crime, something Bloomberg has been at pains to highlight. In 1997, in a meeting of the tribal council to discuss a $.25-per-pack levy on smoke shops, three men in masks barged in, brandishing firearms, pointing them at the chief’s head.

In the next few years, a man named Rodney Morrison, not an Unkechaug himself but married to one, was charged with firebombing the car of a rival smoke-shop proprietor and the murder of another. Though he was acquitted of those charges, in 2004 he was arrested (and eventually convicted) of a racketeering conspiracy involving black-market cigarettes.

The State Department of Taxation and Finance says that in 2007, 11.3 million cartons changed hands on the reservation. That’s more than 25 times the number reported a decade before, and, if the numbers are correct (the chief says they are not), over $11 million in revenue for the tribal council—not a bad return on 55 acres in Mastic.

Chief Wallace took a cigarette from a pack of Nat Sherman New York Cut, sank back in his chair, and provided a different economic narrative. “Here’s one that got $1,000. Whoa, this one’s a star, she got $1,300,” he said, reading off the names of reservation students who would be receiving gift certificates for their academic performance the previous school year. There is also a modest reward for attendance. In the past year, the tribe has spent $200,000 on education, paying 25 percent of tuition for the 40 Unkechaug students currently enrolled in colleges around the country.

After a while, we climbed into his red Cadillac. “The only thing you need from the white man is a car, because a car is faster than a horse,” he said. Driving through the reservation: It’s hard to see beyond the smoke shops to take in whatever natural beauty exists on the river banks. Neon signs offer competitive prices, creating tough decisions for customers to contemplate from pickup trucks whose idling engines are joined by the buzz of the renegade ATVs giddily weaving about the traffic, as if to remind you, in case you happened to forget: You’re in Indian country now.

“The goal here is not to stop us from selling cigarettes,” Chief Wallace said. “It’s to try and destroy us as a people.”

The settlement, located in the hamlet of Mastic, a few miles west of Westhampton, between Carmans River and the Forge River, was once an ideal location for hunting right whales. According to historian John A. Strong, of Long Island University, the Unkechaug were famous for their skill at whaling. Don’t get the chief started on the whaling business. Sovereignty, his wounded knee! “In 1676, our people attempted to establish their own independent whaling company,” he began. “We had the best whalers. We decided to gather up all of our skilled harpoonists and whalers and formulate our own company. There’s a documented history of complaint to the colonial governor of New York that the settlers in the towns were interfering with our company, trying to take away whales that we captured, destroy our boats. All these things were in an effort to prevent us from establishing an independent, economically viable enterprise. Sixteen-seventy-six. How many years ago was that?”

Harry Wallace grew up in Queens, but made regular visits to his uncle on the reservation, which was in bad shape at that time; a 1967 government report concluded that the living conditions were worse than those of migrant farmworkers in California. Harry ended up at Dartmouth—the first in his family to attend college. The first day he got there, some football player started calling him names. Harry knocked him silly. “He messed with the wrong guy,” he said. The football team, as well as other sports teams, were known as the Dartmouth Indians, but Wallace led a successful campaign to change the name—now the teams are known as Big Green. After Dartmouth, Wallace attended New York Law School. He spent the eighties as an attorney in Manhattan, working on things like personal injury, landlord-tenant disputes. But there was work to do on the reservation.

There is no landlord, per se, on the 55 acres between Eleanor Avenue and Poospatuck Lane—it’s communal property owned by the tribe, not any individual. What land is left cannot be sold. But residents aren’t able to use their land as an asset to get a loan, to fix that leaky roof. And sovereignty also means responsibility for your own municipalities: telephone poles, road maintenance, running water are provided for largely by the tribe itself.


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