How to stop tobacco smuggling among the Mohawks

By Doug George-Kanentiio
New From Indian Country

Twenty years ago the Mohawk Nation Council at Akwesasne appointed a committee to investigate how to resolve the tobacco smuggling which was becoming a serious issue on my home community.

A small group of Mohawks had elected to use our unique geographical position astride the international border to transport unregulated tobacco across the St. Lawrence River and were prepared to protect this lucrative activity with whatever means at their disposal.

The Nation Council was concerned that this activity was certain to attract the attention of organized crime in the U.S. and Canada and would certainly lead to violence and clashes with the Canadian and American law enforcement agencies.

I was selected as one of the committee members. We spent many months collecting data and debating a complex issue which was bound to incur resistance whatever recommendations we submitted to the council.

Nonetheless, we arrived at a solution we thought would enhance our Aboriginal status while providing a substantial income for our community.

Here are our proposals:

1. All tobacco products entering Mohawk territory would be subject to our own laws. Each delivery would be regulated and all wholesalers would have to obtain Mohawk Nation import permits.

2. All tobacco products would be accounted for prior to delivery from the wholesaler and all trucks carrying such product had to report to a central control facility prior to delivery.

3. A Nation surcharge would be levied on the tobacco product with the resulting funds used for communal projects.

4. All retailers would be licensed by the Mohawk Nation and subject to periodic inspection. No tobacco product could be sold without a Nation stamp.

5. Negotiatons with federal officials in Canada and the U.S. were to begin in which an agreement would be forged enabling the Nation to deliver tobacco products to aboriginal communities throughout Canada. All such deliveries would be licensed, controlled and accounted for by the Mohawk Nation using our own vehicles. Each vehicle would have an exact manifest, would be sealed at the point of loading which could only be opened once the product was delivered to the specific Native governing agency.

6. We would negotiate a price for the product close to parity with prices charged by off reservation businesses. The bulk of the profits would go to the Native governments to pay for social services with the idea that for every dollar made by the Nation the federal, provincial and state governments would reduce an equal amount in their expenditures for Aboriginal programs.

7. The Mohawk Nation would empower its own peacekeeping unit to enforce these regulations. This unit would have the authority in all Mohawk territories. Breaches of the Nation laws would be subject to a Mohawk Nation justice code based on Aboriginal principles and traditions.

8. Forge nation-to-nation trade agreements with other aboriginal governments promoting free trade across international borders: in effect, revive the ancient trade routes and practices in the northeast.

The key for us was to demonstrate our willingness to act responsibility while strengthening our internal economy.

When we approached officials in Ottawa they were most interested in making this work. If we succeeded the taxpayers of Canada would no longer have to underwrite such services as health, education, housing and policing among the Mohawks.

Our plans were, sadly, undermined by our own people. The tobacco millionaires organized a series of conflicts which made it impossible for the Mohawk Nation to carry out its plans.

But the potential is there to revive our committee’s work and bring an end to tobacco smuggling through effective Mohawk regulation in partnership with Ottawa.

Prohibition in the U.S. failed miserably because it sought to criminalize an ingrained social activity beyond reason. It gave rise enormous power to the Mafia among other criminal groups. Tobacco smuggling cannot be completely stopped but by imposing our own laws supported by our own justice system we can resolve a growing crisis in all three nations.

Doug George-Kanentiio, is the former editor of the newsjournal Akwesasne Notes. A cofounder of the Native American Journalists Association he is the author of “Iroquois on Fire,” an analysis of current Iroquois politics. He is a native of Akwesasne. He may be reached via e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by calling 315-363-1655. His address is: 2 Elm Court, Akwesasne, Ontario K6H 5R7.