Native Americans call New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s ‘cowboy hat’ remark racist

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s advice to Gov. David Paterson on how to collect sales tax on cigarettes sold on Indian reservations was simple: “Get yourself a cowboy hat and a shotgun” and enforce the law.

That comment on his weekly radio show has sparked outrage from Native Americans in Central New York and across the country. They charge the comment was racially insensitive and offensive.

Twenty-five Oneida Nation members and other Native Americans who work at the Oneida Nation protested Monday on the steps of City Hall in New York.

The Seneca Nation has called on the mayor to resign.

National Congress of American Indians wants him to apologize.

Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter said the imagery of the governor “wearing a cowboy hat and holding a shotgun” to confront Native Americans is offensive and hurtful. He compared the plight of Native Americans to American Jews in a letter to Bloomberg.

“You can similarly imagine how members of the Jewish community would react if a politician urged the governor to ‘wear a red armband and hold a shotgun’ to confront Jewish people who defend their lands as we defend ours,” Halbritter wrote in a letter to Bloomberg. “While you claim to be calling just for the law to be enforced, surely as a Jewish leader you would recognize the tragic history of laws being used to suppress ethnic minorities.”

During the broadcast on Aug. 13, Bloomberg said, “I’ve said this to David Paterson, I said, you know, ‘Get yourself a cowboy hat and a shotgun. If there’s ever a great video, it’s you standing in the middle of the New York State Thruway saying, you know, ‘Read my lips — the law of the land is this, and we’re going to enforce the law.'”

Bloomberg’s comments come at time when the state is preparing to tax reservation cigarette sales. The law is scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 1.

Under the plan, the state would collect $4.35 per pack sales tax on cigarettes sold by Native American retailers to non-Native customers. The tax is expected to generate about $200 million a year, according to the Associated Press.

The Seneca Nation, however, has filed a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court to try to block the state from enforcing new tax laws.

The Seneca Nation of Indians passed a Tribal Council Resolution on Aug. 14 condemning Bloomberg’s comment as derogatory against the nation and its membership.

The resolution demands that Bloomberg resign his post as mayor of New York City and provide a formal written apology to the Seneca Nation and its members. The resolution also asks Paterson to publicly condemn Bloomberg’s comments and authorizes Seneca President Barry Snyder to file human rights and hate crime violations with the state of New York, Justice Department and United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous People.

The National Congress of American Indians demanded an apology from the mayor.

“We understand that the State of New York and the Senecas are having a disagreement about tax policy, but legal disagreements between governments require responsible leadership and diplomacy and not reckless calls for violence,” said Jefferson Keel, the group’s president.

“It is insulting that a tribal government defending its legal rights today is threatened with the brutalities of the past,” he said. “I have asked Mayor Bloomberg to apologize for his choice of words and to return the discourse to the level of civility that we all deserve.”

Bloomberg’s office did not have a comment on Monday’s protest or the call for an apology, according to spokeswoman Jessica Scaperotti. Scaperotti released the following statement regarding the taxation issue.

“The Supreme Court has ruled several times that tribes simply have no right to hurt competing small businesses and taxpayers by ignoring taxes owed on cigarettes sold to others,” she said. “In fact, just today we announced that a federal appeals court denied the latest set of requests to allow such sales.”

Tribal leaders say reservations are sovereign nations that are not subject to paying state taxes on sales by their vendors, whether purchasers are Native Americans or non-Natives.

Former Gov. George Pataki’s efforts to collect taxes in the mid- to late-1990s resulted in Native Americans blocking the Thruway by setting tires on fire.

By Sarah Moses

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