More Pow, More Wow! Fireworks Have Turned Into a Good Seasonal Business for Many Tribes

With the July 4 holiday approaching, thousands of visitors are expected to flock to reservations in the West in search of fireworks they cannot buy at home. There they will often find the spectacular devices the federal government classifies as 1.4G or consumer fireworks, formerly called Class C—bottle rockets, Roman candles, mortar shells, M-80s and blackjacks. The Snoqualmie Indian Tribe sells “some fireworks with more gunpowder, more bang than the ‘safe and sane’ devices” allowed by the state of Washington, says Matt Mattson, tribal administrator.

Within the bounds of the federal regulations, states—and most tribes—may set their own rules. States that allow fireworks usually also allow local municipalities to further restrict which fireworks may be purchased and discharged.

States that ban all fireworks include Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. More than 40 states allow all or some consumer fireworks. Some states restrict the sale of consumer fireworks to those considered “safe and sane,” which are those that do not fly or explode, such as fountains, sparklers, wheels, smoke bombs, strobes and ground spinners. Firecrackers, rockets, missiles, mines, shells, aerial cakes, flying spinners and Roman candles are not considered “safe and sane” as a rule, though states set their own criteria for those.

Indian tribes are subject only to federal fireworks regulations. Some restrict the sale of fireworks to tribal entities, while others allow individual tribal members to sell fireworks and yet others allow nontribal members to sell the devices on the reservation. Fireworks may not be discharged on Bureau of Indian Affairs property, and most tribes forbid their discharge in tribal housing areas.

The Snoqualmie Tribe set up a fireworks stand for the first time last year. This year a large tent pitched in the lower parking lot of the Snoqualmie Casino will be open from June 24 through July 5. Says Matson, “The reservation is small, so in the interests of not disturbing the casino or tobacco shop, we do not allow fireworks to be set off on the reservation.” The tribe does a three- to four-hour fireworks demonstration early in the season to show what fireworks are available, tapes that and shows it to potential customers through YouTube and at the fireworks stand.

The nondischarge law could present a conundrum for customers, because fireworks purchased on reservations may be illegal to discharge, transport or even possess off reservation lands. Matt Belue, owner of Baachachik Fireworks on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana, allows customers to shoot off the fireworks they buy in his parking lot. The tribe chartered Belue’s fireworks business in 1994, even though he is not Native. (He says he started the business in order to pay for college and never expected it to get as big as it has.)

Belue says the Crow Tribe never questioned his request to open a fireworks stand for two reasons. First, his father is Clarence Belue, who served as the tribe’s attorney for 40 years. Second, Matt employs some tribal members and gives back to the community by sponsoring sports teams and events such as basketball tournaments, pow wows, golf tournaments, arrow tournaments and by presenting fireworks displays at tribal events such as Crow Fair and Crow Native Days.

Jim Miller is another non-Indian selling fireworks on reservation land. He is owner of Mel’s Fireworks located on Bay Mills Indian Community land on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He says a few tribes in the state had a monopoly on selling consumer fireworks for a long time, but then a new law made it legal for people 18 and older to buy, possess and discharge consumer favorites such as rockets, Roman candles, firecrackers and helicopters. “The changes in the Michigan law are really going to change things for us,” says Miller. “Things may be better, maybe not as good, but the law is going to put a strain on tribal businesses.”

Arizona passed a law in 2010 allowing safe and sane fireworks, but still forbids the sale of other consumer fireworks, and tribes remain subject to federal law regarding the sale of fireworks.

Brian Golding Sr., director of economic development for the Quechan Tribe in California, says tribal members sell fireworks on the reservation for July 4, New Year’s, Indian Days and other tribal celebrations and have done so for as long as he can remember. “We sell them for the sheer joy and satisfaction of being able to set of fireworks,” he says. “Customers set them off right here on the Stomping Grounds [in Yuma, Arizona] where our celebrations are held.”

Matson takes a more serious approach to the benefits that accrue to the tribe through the sale of fireworks. “Selling fireworks that are more attractive to buyers than those offered by other nontribal vendors has been a real economic development opportunity to make money to support tribal community,” he says. “It is good business and a good opportunity. The community works together, it’s a cash-intensive business, and it’s focused on a specific holiday.” Profits go into the tribe’s general fund to support services such as health care.

Don’t Burn Down the House!

Communities ban fireworks for two reasons. The first is the danger that they will spark fires, especially wildfires. Last year, when drought conditions plagued many areas of the country, numerous states and municipalities banned even fireworks displays put on by professionals.

The second reason is safety. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that hospital emergency rooms treated 8,600 people for fireworks-caused injuries and three people died in 2010. Most of those injuries occurred in the 30-day period surrounding July 4. The CPSC offers a list of fireworks safety tips at CPSC.gov/info/fireworks/index.html.