Alcohol Deaths Spur Changes on Reservation

Monday, January 3rd 2005, 11:30 am
By: News On 6

MISSOULA (AP) _ The Flathead Indian Reservation is shifting its focus to children and retooling tribal policies following the drinking deaths of four boys in a six-month period. The deaths, starting in late 2003, stunned the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, but inspired a gritty resolve to help children deal with alcohol without underestimating the power of generations of alcohol abuse.

``It seems like we've got some good things going, but I think we can't forget that we are fighting something that has been a problem for our people for hundreds of years,'' said Tony Incashola, head of the Salish Cultural Committee. ``Sometimes there's a sense of 'Hey, what can we really do?' but you can't let that stop you from trying.''

Tyler Benoist died first. The 14-year-old spent the night drinking with friends in November 2003 and was found dead of smoke inhalation in a burned trailer in Pablo. Authorities said he had passed out with a blood-alcohol level of 0.233.

Three months later, Tyler's 11-year-old brother, Justin, and another boy, Frankie Nicolai, vanished from Ronan Middle School. A friend found their bodies three days later.

Tests concluded alcohol poisoning killed Frankie, whose blood-alcohol level was 0.50 percent, more than six times the drunken-driving threshold in Montana. Justin, whose blood alcohol was 0.20 percent, died from a combination of alcohol poisoning and hypothermia.

No one was charged in the case.

In May, 15-year-old Joey DuMontier drank most of a fifth of whiskey and died in a chair at a home northeast of Ronan. Sentencing is scheduled Jan. 22 for Richard Lopez, 21, of Ronan who pleaded guilty to providing at least some of the alcohol.

Tribal leaders knew something had to be done. For a while, the response appeared mostly symbolic through rallies, walks and get-togethers held to generate ideas and allow the public to grieve.

``I think all the rallies and events were a way for people to feel like they were doing something,'' Incashola said. ``A rally is a way, on one hand, to show support, but it's also a way to say 'Well, what else can we do?' This was so big that people had a very difficult time imagining how we could really respond to it.''

In recent months, the tribal council has stepped up, appointing a team to identify ways the government can better respond to children's needs and outlining tribal policy regarding children in a tribal children's code.

The tribes also recently took part in a training program that should ultimately lead to formation of a drug court. The court would be family oriented, with neither children nor adults treated in isolation.

``You're dealing with the family as a unit, so the whole system is essentially gathered around the family,'' said Teresa Wall-McDonald, who heads the tribes' Department of Human Resources and Development.

Tribal elders have also become more involved by connecting with tribal programs that deal with children.

``They're coming at this from the perspective of making sure that we find ways to connect with the positive values of the past,'' Incashola said. ``A lot of elders have felt helpless and hopeless about passing down the value of family, so there's a real push there to see if we can do something about that.''

Despite the changes, grief is never far away on the reservation in northwestern Montana, he said.

``When you lose young people, I think it's something you never quite get over,'' Incashola said. ``There will always be something that makes you remember what happened. Those are wounds that never quite heal, but they also make you remember what you ought to be doing to make sure the same thing doesn't happen again.''