Tim, the hired man locks the sheep into a blue metal basket, one at a time, as I feed them to him single file, through a long curved wood chute in the barn. A big stick I found in the field last week encourages their journey through. Once locked in, Tim gives a carnie flip to the blue basket. The sheep’s eyes spin wide searching circles of fear while Joseph shoots them in the backside with a big blue syringe. I look at Joseph’s blue eyes, and wonder if he makes certain that everything around him is blue, or if it is a matter of simple mistakes or coincidence.
“Dadblast it!” Joseph curses, “Those Pretty Feathers got themselves a brand new truck last week.”
Tim concurs. “Damn nice ‘un.”
“I heard in town that they traded it with Wilson Family Ford for ongoing butcher services.” I offer.
“Bullshit they traded it.” Joseph counters, “I’d more likely believe they paid for it with the money they save up not paying taxes on that butcher business. Lance Wilson won’t do business with Indians.”
“Wouldn’t be too sure about that,” I retort, “Wilson’s wife Wanda is friends with Josie Pretty Feathers.”
Tim chimes in, “I heard it ain’t no butcher business, at all, but a cover for card games they got goin’ on in the freezer. My wife read a book by some Indian woman, talked about playin’ cards in freezers.” He punctuates his remark with a loud laugh.
“Either way," I say, "Wanda and Josie took that new truck out cruising last Friday night. I saw them down by the Gap.”
Outside, the lambs bellow for their momma’s teats, and the ewes inside feel some relief—that is until they get closer to the basket. Fear spreads to the first three or four ewes in line. Eight to ten ewes back from the basket, I station myself on the bottom rung of the chute, my own personal soapbox. “Do you know,” I flourish the stick above my captive audience stretching know into an almost two-syllable word, “That the Pretty Feathers are the only people who make potato sausage (present company excluded) in a five county radius?” Pausing for effect, I raise my voice slightly, “Do you know, that the Pretty Feathers are required by law to pay both state and federal taxes?” I stop to catch my breath, look up and notice that Joseph has stopped working and is staring right at me.
“Now what do you think you know Miss FancyPants?”
Stepping off the fence and onto the soft barn floor, I turn and face Joseph straight on, “Will you listen?”
He will sit on every word I say, just to think of a way to turn it into a question about Wanda Wilson and Josie Pretty Feathers. Joseph is a good listener; he remembers things no one should. His wheels are spinning.
“Come on Joseph,” Tim pleas, “Tell 'er you’ll listen. I wanna hear this one!”
“Go ahead, I’ll listen, but let’s keep these ewes moving through, I don’t want to spend another day in here with you two.” The metal squeaks as Tim turns a ewe on her side.
I start slow, striving to sound mysterious, “Let me start by saying, it isn’t what I think I know, it’s what I’ve been studying, it’s what I am coming to know.”
Joseph rolls his eyes, and Tim laughs.
“First of all, the Pretty Feathers land is not on the reservation. They are required to pay taxes. Not only federal property taxes, but state property taxes, as well. Because they live and work off-reservation, they pay the same state and federal taxes that we do, even income taxes. They are also responsible for business taxes, too. They run their business in Harlo, not on the rez. Most of their customers are folks like you and me.”
Tim posits, “…and every Indian in Harlo, and every Indian in the Gap.”
Joseph holds the syringe up in the air and squints one eye, “Is it legal for them to do a trade business? Do they have to report that for taxes?” For emphasis, he inoculates the ewe right as he says the word that.
“I don’t know, Joseph. Now if they lived and worked on a reservation---that would change things up a bit.”
Tim asks “How so?”
“Squire vs. Capoeman is a Supreme Court case. It holds that legally, Indians must pay the same federal income taxes as everybody else, unless Congress expressly grants them immunity through a treaty or other statute. So unless it is written in law explicitly, that Native Americans are exempt for any reason, they pay federal income taxes.”
“What about on the rez?” Tim asks.
“Because reservations were set up with the idea that Indian tribes are sovereign nations, the courts have upheld that state taxes don’t apply to Indians who work and live on the reservation. Unlike states, recognized Indian tribes have a government-to-government relationship with the US Government. Concerning federal taxes, a few exemptions were upheld by the Squire vs. Capoeman decision. For instance, Indians earning an income from the land they were “given” through the General Allotment Act do not pay federal taxes on that income. The court interpreted that GAA “conferred” that immunity from taxation. So, if Joseph were a Native American and these sheep,” I push one along, “were on the reservation, this business would be immune from taxes on the income it brings.”
Joseph blurts, “That there is a crock of shit!”
“Simmer down, Joseph. Let me tell you why I think it works this way,” I say. “Vine DeLoria, a Standing Rock Sioux, finds fault with the implication from “Squire vs. Capoeman forward…that the (tax) exemption occurs because Indians are incompetent. That we won’t tax them until they are our economic, social, and intellectual equals.” DeLoria calls that a “hazardous thing to hang your hat on.” It is a system that grew out of racist, paternalistic ideas of white guys like you.” I smile big at him, knowing he hates the whole blame the white male for every malady that arises in history attitude. “The General Allotment Act, or the Dawes Act, sought to civilize the Indians. The land they were allotted was supposed to be some magic carpet ride into the white man’s view of success. American Indians did not want isolated pieces of land to farm—their culture is communal in nature. Not to mention, the language in the act is ridiculous. It talks down to Indian peoples. There are all kinds of assumptions regarding their inferiority written into the document.”
“Okay, okay enough pontificatin’!” Tim continues, “So because we wanted to civilize ‘em, we gotta give ‘em a tax break?”
“I think it’s more about the language in the treaties, and statutes. It’s more about semantics----or what those words mean. Picture a bunch of people sitting around arguing over what the words mean.”
“Like church,” Joseph says, “everybody’s got their own ideas about the Bible.”
“Yeah, it’s like interpreting the Bible, and look at all the havoc that’s reaped! The GAA was supposed to empower Indian peoples to meet with success as individuals. Taxing them on income earned from the land impedes their progress. At least that’s how Squire vs. Capoeman interpreted it.”
“So what if I as a white person had my business on the reservation, would they get to tax me?” Joseph asks, read for another go at it. (I’m still waiting for him to bring up Wanda and Josie.)
“My mind is full of learning, Joseph; let me think on this for a minute.” We keep moving sheep, most run out of the barn with bleats of protest. Back in the corral, they nuzzle their lambs wildly. Pacing the floor of the barn, I formulate my response and with incomplete certitude posit, “I think you still pay the same taxes that you do, and I don’t believe the tribe can tax you, too.”
“What, the tribes tax me, too? I don’t have a brand new truck from Wilson Family Ford!”
“Whoa, hold on, Joseph, I said they can’t tax you. The state and the feds will take care of that---and what does any of this have to do with a truck?”
As the last ewe entered the basket Tim said, “Truck, schmuck…Joseph never did get over Wanda Wilson.”
“What the hell she doin’ with an Indian chick on a Friday night, anyway?” Joseph let the last sheep loose, and it ran out the door without looking back.