Smoke shop to remain with Squaxin tribe

Court: Judge strengthens autonomy of Frank’s Landing

July 10, 2009 

The Nisqually Indian Tribe has failed to gain control of the cigarette business at Frank’s Landing.

A federal judge on Wednesday in Seattle dismissed the tribe’s lawsuit against Gov. Chris Gregoire and members of the Squaxin Island Tribe. The suit contended the state had illegally allowed the Squaxins to run the Frank’s Landing smoke-shop and collect taxes there.

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton rejected the Nisqually tribe’s argument that it has jurisdiction over the little enclave near the Nisqually River Delta, even though it is on trust land originally granted to a Nisqually tribal member.

Cynthia Iyall, chairwoman of the Nisqually tribe, declined to comment on the outcome when contacted Thursday but later released a statement through the tribe’s public relations firm.

“We’re disappointed in the judge’s ruling and still strongly believe in the merits of our case,” Iyall said in the statement. “We’re currently evaluating our next steps.”

Gregoire was named in the suit because of agreements the state has made to collect taxes on cigarette sales on tribal land. Under terms of the state compacts, tribes agree to charge a tobacco tax equivalent to the state’s and are allowed to keep the money.

Because the smoke shop at Frank’s Landing is not on a reservation, it fell through the cracks in the state-tribal agreements. The shop continued to sell untaxed cigarettes, and in 2007, was raided and shut down by federal agents.

The Frank’s Landing community asked the Squaxin Island Tribe to run the shop for them, hoping to use a share of the proceeds to support a school it runs there, Wa He Lut Indian School.

The Squaxins agreed, and Gregoire amended the state’s compact with the Squaxins to make the arrangement possible.

The Nisquallys viewed the deal as an attack on their sovereignty and went to court.

Much is at stake in the controversy. The cigarette business at Frank’s Landing has been lucrative. When federal agents raided the smoke shop in 2007, they seized $1.3 million in cash.

Later in court, federal prosecutors said owners Henry and Alison Gottfriedson sold at least 701,075 cartons of contraband cigarettes at the shop between 2001 and 2007, generating $21.3 million in revenue.

The Nisqually tribe believes it is the rightful owner of that revenue stream.

Frank’s Landing is just minutes from an Interstate 5 interchange, making it much more accessible than the tribe’s Rez Mart, 20 minutes upriver on Yelm Highway.

The broader issue, though, is legal jurisdiction over the Landing. The Nisqually Tribe has always claimed, and continues to claim, it is part of its territory.

The Landing community has tried hard to establish its independence.

In 1994, in part through the political connections of the Landing’s patriarch, Billy Frank, Congress passed legislation identifying Frank’s Landing as “a self-governing dependent Indian community that is not subject to the jurisdiction of any federally recognized tribe.”

Leighton’s decision this week strengthens that status.

In his decision, Leighton wrote, “The court does not in this decision opine on the outer limits of the community’s powers.”

However, he said, those powers clearly include the power to enter into contracts such as the one with the Squaxins.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693

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