Mohawk land claim could affect businesses in Massena

Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 5:26 PM EST
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MASSENA, New York (WWNY) - St. Regis Mohawks have claimed for years that an area near downtown Massena belongs to them. What’s new is that businesses opening up there could soon be selling things like cigarettes tax-free. That could make it tough for other businesses where taxes are charged.

Cut-rate cigarettes now available in the heart of Massena. Tax free. Mohawk entrepreneurs see it this way.

“I see an opportunity. So, I just wanted to go with it and see if we can make something out of it,” said Maria Pyke, Silver Fit Nutrition owner.

Pyke doesn’t sell tax-free cigarettes yet, but she is applying to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe for licenses. She says she can do that “because of the location that we are in. We are in the square mile of land claim area.”

A square mile, just about the whole east end of the village, has long been claimed by the tribe under a 1796 treaty. In response to a 7 News inquiry, the tribe stated recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions support that claim.

The statement went on: “Not surprisingly tribal members have expressed interest in opening businesses within that area. In response, the Tribe is working on regulations for such businesses that will set forth the types of businesses that will be licensed.”

The tribe did not answer Monday when asked if any licenses for retail marijuana sales are pending in the square mile. Village officials have been watching developments closely.

“We want to make sure that there is a level playing field for all businesses in Massena,” said Timothy Ahlfeld, Massena mayor.

But legally, the village has no role in regulating tobacco. County officials also are following developments. They say a federal court has already ruled the square mile is not subject to the tribe’s ongoing land claim lawsuit.

So, who really owns the land? And who has the right to open what types of businesses? That’s really what’s being argued about.

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