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Iroquois Confederacy calls for sales tax summit

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SALAMANCA, N.Y. - Hoping to avert the strife of just three years ago, leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy are calling a summit meeting to deal with the state government's latest attempt to impose a sales tax on tribal territories.

Seneca Nation President Duane James Ray said the summit would invite New York Gov. George Pataki to discuss what the Confederacy considers a breach of his agreement three years ago to respect tribal sovereignty. Although Pataki was on a tour of Bosnia, Ray said he hoped the meeting would take place days after the Fourth of July holiday.

At issue is a bill awaiting the governor's signature that would control cigarette sales to minors via the Internet. Ray said 40 to 45 stores on the Seneca territory sell cigarettes through web sites and ship them by carriers such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service.

"It's a direct attack on our ability to have free commerce," he said.

Although packaged as a public health measure, the bill revives the highly charged issue of taxation on tribal territory. The bill would penalize common carriers that ship cigarettes not carrying the state tax stamp. It would also ban cigarette shipments by any retailer not licensed by the New York State Department of Revenue.

The issue came to a head three years ago when the state tried to negotiate tax compacts with the Iroquois nations. Although some tribal leaders accepted them, other councils refused. The inter- and intra-tribal tensions erupted in protests that briefly closed the main interstate highways near Buffalo and Syracuse. After New York state troopers occupied the Seneca's Cattaraugus tribal territory, Gov. Pataki abandoned the attempt to tax reservation sales to Indian and non-Indian alike.

With this background, Ray said he was surprised the Internet bill went through with no advance notice to the tribes.

"No one ever mentioned the bill or went to the tribal leaders that I know of," he said.

Ray downplayed a report in the Buffalo press that Senecas might resume tire-fire protests along the New York state thruway.

"Well, let's hope not," he said. "That's the furthest thing from our mind.

The bill, presented as part of the governor's legislative program, passed the state senate June 14 and the state assembly June 22 with no opposition.

Retailers near tribal lands have persistently fought the reservation stores' tax advantage and may be using this bill as their latest attack, said Mohawk spokeswoman Rowena General. "We believe (the governor) is getting a lot of heat from the convenience store and petroleum marketing associations," she said.

The issue went far beyond cigarettes, she said. Another bill still in the Legislature would tax reservation sales of tangible property to non-Indians.

"It's really tiring," General said, "to hear that we're being unfair to all of the surrounding businesses. The concern should be that every time we try to establish a sound economy, the way is closed through legislation."