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Subsistence Economies Threatened in Indian Country

A column by Charles Kader about subsistence economies faltering in Native American communities.

Amid touted economic recovery at the federal government level, Indian country remains underwater in terms of sustainable growth in all but a few isolated pockets of capital markets within the United States and Canada. Turtle Island and all of its natural resources remain a viable alternative to main street business models, many of which have not taken hold for both obvious and not-so-obvious reasons.

My cousin Eric McComber of the Kahnawake Kanienkehaka Territory always comes to mind when subsistence fishing and hunting come to mind. Once, before my people, also known historically as Mohawks, famously took to building bridges and skyscrapers in big cities, their lifestyle involved hunting, fishing and farming. Eric, also known as “Dirt,” previously worked as an ironworker, at times alongside his father Atsenharonkwas (Jimmy “Flo” McComber). Both loved the Creator's sport of lacrosse. Both also shared a love of the outdoors and held a common fascination with fishing as a means to feed a growing family. A third generation of McCombers now also finds itself accessing the fruits of this labor of love.

Over time, Eric’s skills in hunting also grew. He learned to dress appropriately for whatever the weather dished out. Once, he told me, he stood in a duck pond so long the water froze around him as he patiently waited for the next bird to come along before he called it a day. At times, he stayed out so long with his fishing boat that he was the subject of concern as a missing person by dock workers, before he pulled up alongside the pier to quizzical looks. A stalwart among a people of survivors, Eric learned to first repair, and then to fabricate his own fishing nets, because his reliance on these tools exceeded the quality of the commercial nets he first purchased. When he wants something done a certain way, he often finds himself doing it. The harder he works, the luckier he gets, according to his sprightly wife Paula.

No success comes without challenge though. While local acceptance of his naturalistic lifestyle resulted in his being recognized by the elected band council as the only year-round subsistence fisherman and hunter in Kahnawake, provincial government agencies attacked McComber, portraying him as a one-man environmental wrecking machine. Frequent inquiries are still made of Eric, to bring him in line with how these outside governments wish to define, and possibly more accurately, limit his success as an Onkwehonweh living off the land of his Kanienkehaka ancestors.

One aspect of his success is his development of nation-to-nation trade networks with other First Nations people. It was not so long ago that a United Nations trade representative told a visiting Mohawk delegation that the most strategic use of political influence is to develop trade networks within Onkwehonweh communities, so that overseas sovereign partners could best access the untapped potential that exists within Indian country today. Eric McComber has embraced this wholeheartedly.

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Other Kanienkehaka relatives also recognize the benefit to facilitating nation to nation trade. My young cousin Rob Dickson has taken his formal education as a civil engineer and transformed the Rainbow Tobacco federal cigarette license into an economic powerhouse, seeking to stimulate economic development from coast to coast of Turtle Island. He too has run into trade barriers; some daunting enough to make him question the opportunity for Native people to compete fairly in capital markets, even with a federal license. In patent disregard of this status, the provinces of Canada tell Rainbow Tobacco that establishment of nation to nation trade networks need their authorization, as well as tax tributes, to their regional governments.

Never forget, a trusted elder has told me previously, that a license is the temporary ability to do something that would otherwise be determined by someone to be illegal. This same elder also offers similar wisdom on the attempts to tax Onkwehonweh. We are a pre-taxable civilization; we cannot be tax exempt because we are first tax immune, and in all of our historical agreements with colonizing Europeans, this was understood. Now, this elder relates, the United States and Canadian government hold this reality against us, and attempt to outlaw everything that Native people successfully undertake. The playing field may be made to look level, but it has land mines strategically planted underneath it to derail our collective livelihood.

Similar challenges by state governments to United States-issued licensed tobacco manufacturers on the Akwesasne Kanienkehaka Territory also parallel this disturbing trend of regional business disruption. Current lawsuits over seized tobacco products see New York State asserting the right to tax cigarettes despite a clear over-reaching of state government powers into the federal domain.

The long journey of Native business people from fur trading to modern commercial viability continues. Without the understanding of hereditary sovereignty behind us, the red road ahead would be longer still. It is a Victory Lane of survivors one and all; not merely winners and losers.

Charles Kader (Turtle Clan) was born in Erie, Pennsylvania to a World War II veteran. He attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in Communication and Library Science, as well as Mercyhurst College where he earned a graduate degree in the Administration of Justice. He has worked across Indian country, from the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana (where he married his wife) to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and now resides in Kanienkeh.