Indians cast out liquor

Monday, October 9th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TOPPENISH, Wash. (AP) — The Yakama Nation was hoping to temper the ravages of alcohol abuse when it banned alcohol sales on its sprawling reservation in south-central Washington.

But most tavern owners — who are not tribal members — have kept the liquor flowing since the ban was enacted three weeks ago, and they are looking to the state that issues their liquor licenses for protection.

The state attorney general has sued tribal officials contending that, despite Yakama Nation sovereignty, it cannot legally impose its regulations on the 20,000 non-tribal members living on the reservation.

Yakama leaders in turn have asked U.S. Attorney Jim Shively in Spokane to enforce an 1830s federal law that prohibits intoxicants on Indian land.

``As some kind of tribal ordinance, we don't have the resources to enforce it,'' said Tribal Councilman Jack Fiander, a lawyer.

Tribal leaders are not interested in prosecuting alcohol possession for personal use; instead they are targeting sales.

Alcohol is frequently cited as a problem for some of the 2.4 million Indians in 558 tribes in the United States. Leaders on reservations across the country have taken various steps to deal with it.

On the Yakama reservation, home to 5,000 tribal members, empty liquor bottles are found at nearly every crime scene. There are 13 unsolved homicides involving young Indian women, most of whom were last seen in a local tavern.

Alcohol has long been banned from the parts of the reservation open to tribal members only, as well as at its casino and convenience store.

``The Lower Yakima Valley is a fairly small, mostly rural area. To have 50-plus commercial establishments selling alcohol, that's too big a part of the economy,'' Fiander said.

He told of a grocery store owner complaining the ban would kill her business, which earns 78 percent of its profits from beer and wine sales.

``That was sort of our point — if 80 percent of your profits were from selling alcohol, that's not a grocery store. It's a liquor store.''

Earlier this year, the state closed its two liquor stores on the reservation, but the owners of 47 other businesses that sell alcohol could lose their livelihoods and their investments to the ban.

``This business is not worth a dime,'' Buster Windsor, owner of Little John's tavern in Toppenish, said when the ban took effect Sept. 17. ``I couldn't give it away.''

State Attorney General Christine Gregoire has asked the U.S. District Court in Spokane to find that the liquor resolution does not apply to people who are not tribal members or on property owned by nonmembers.

The state filed the lawsuit reluctantly, and has no quarrel with the tribe's efforts to regulate its own members, said Gary Larson, a spokesman for Gregoire's office.

``We're very understanding about the desire of the tribe to address the serious problems of alcohol,'' Larson said.

The suit, he said, was intended to clarify whether the tribe could impose restrictions on non-tribal members who didn't have a vote in the decision to implement this ban.

Yakama leaders started talking about the restrictions in 1993 after studying fetal alcohol syndrome, which can afflict children born to mothers who consumed excessive amounts of alcohol during pregnancy.

The rate of children born with the birth defects is about 500 percent higher on the Yakama reservation than in society at large, Fiander said.

The rate of traffic deaths also is higher, said Gary Carter, an environmental health officer for the tribe. From 1993 to 1996, 78 percent of all motor vehicle deaths on the reservation were alcohol-related, compared with 39 percent for the state of Washington and 48 percent for the nation.

For the last two years, the Blackfeet Tribal Council in Montana has banned alcohol sales during certain celebrations.

``They recognize our heritage and culture and tradition without alcohol,'' said Emorie Davis-Bird, director of the Blackfeet Department of Revenue.

Similar to the Yakama Nation, the Blackfeet reservation is a checkerboard of privately and tribal-owned land. Most of the taverns, licensed by both the state of Montana and the Blackfeet tribe, are owned by non-Indians, she said.

There were complaints but in the end ``everyone was very respectful,'' Davis-Bird said. Statistics showed later there were fewer arrests and disturbances during the events.

Across the country, there are both dry and wet reservations. In Washington state, the Makah reservation is dry, for example, but three others have tribal liquor stores.

At the Tulalip reservation, in western Washington, the role of alcohol is constantly debated. The center of the reservation, where most tribal functions occur, is alcohol-free, but liquor is sold at a casino and three stores on the eastern edge of the reservation.

In Nebraska, Indian activists have unsuccessfully tried to shut down white-owned liquor stores in Whiteclay, two miles from the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation over the state line in South Dakota.

Four stores in Whiteclay sell millions of dollars worth of beer each year, most of it to Oglala Sioux.

The Yakamas may be breaking new ground by going from wet to dry.

``As far as I know, we're the first tribe that's done this by changing course midway through its history,'' Fiander said.

``It's symbolic when you enact something that excludes alcohol from the reservation. It's like you're casting it out.''


On the Net:

Bureau of Indian Affairs:

National Congress of American Indians: