12/07/2012 05:31 EST | Updated 02/06/2013 05:12 EST

Smoke Traders and the Story of Native Poverty


The spark of a match in the cold of the night has come to symbolize the rebirth of the Mohawk economy. Along the banks of the St. Lawrence River cigarettes are transported for sale tax-free to willing non-native customers. Questions of the legality of this Native profession have many fighting. Depending on whom you ask it's a crime (non-Native non-smokers) or a right (Native entrepreneurs). What it boils down to is tax dollars and the smart aboriginal folks that found a way to make the treaties work for their betterment as individuals and as a community. Native people don't pay tax and that's a right. When caught transporting tobacco products and charged with tax evasion, a Native person stands alone against the courts and the entire government.

This industry is not for everyone, Native or non-Native, but to deny the fact that tobacco money has brought more to communities than any broken promises from any level of government is a complete denial of reality. Cigarettes' have delivered many First Nations people out of Third World conditions and are creating new levels of businesses beyond the tobacco industry. If this was a simple black and white issue then the Canadian/Provincial government would simply raid the various known Native cigarette factories and shut smoke trading down. But this is a very grey issue because Native rights are enshrined in treaties that the government is committed to circumvent. The government won't take on First Nations as a whole but rather slowly pick away at individuals. So, the battle will continue as long as the government marginalizes Native people and legally binding treaties are not respected.

What is amazing is that during the course of filming Smoke Traders, Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike Mitchell often spoke about how the government badgers him to find an alternative economy to the Native Tobacco Trade. The point was often raised: "How do we deal with this tobacco problem?" Well one possible solution that would rival the tobacco jobs was a solar assembly plant that required a loan of 2- to 5-million dollars to start. One hundred plus jobs could be created, a replacement business to the tobacco industry and the chance for Native folks to showcase how truly strong they are to the greater society.

No money ever came for Akwesasne to build the solar plant, but international business giant Samsung was able to secure 300-million plus of Canadian tax dollars to build plants for the very same reason. The public voice of the government has always been, "we will help our Native brothers," but the actions taken have always highlighted the lack of commitment to First Nations survival as a people or as an economy.

Waiting, waiting and waiting for promises of a better life built the Native Tobacco industry. The taste of success and finical independence lead to the growth of this business. Many don't want this way of life but circumstances have led many to this profession. Those that began as "smoke traders" are now leaving the business behind for different, less controversial businesses and are branching out using the money earned selling cigarettes to finance a new future in a European-based economy.

Native people were strong at commerce long before European influences and learned to adapt every step of the way. The tobacco trade is simply an extension of that ever-growing independence that was once strong. Poverty is truly a huge issue for most Aboriginal people worldwide and as the Mohawks are showing, only they can make their lives better. Waiting for governments to do the right thing will only widen the poverty gap that so many live in day to day.