Roger Clawson
Roger Clawson

Fellowship Title:

Beating Alcohol Through Tribal Self-Help

Roger Clawson
March 15, 1990

Fellowship Year

A giant of an Indian knocked at a door in Custer, Montana on a sultry afternoon in the late 1940s. The big man wore three braids under a flat-brimmed, dome-crowned hat. He asked for my father and Dad joined him on the front lawn where they sat cross-legged, smoked and talked the sun down. When it was safely dark, my father drove downtown to buy whiskey.

Bootlegging suffered but did not die in 1953 when Congress repealed statutes prohibiting sale of liquor to native Americans, ending an era of prohibition that began in 1645 when the Connecticut Colony outlawed sale of alcohol to local tribes.

Newspaper articles from 1953 mention civil rights, but some Indians saw lifting of the ban as yet another white assault on their people. Many agreed with an elderly Crow woman who said, “They’re just trying to kill more Indians.”

On August 16, the first day of the new era, Crow and Cheyenne men loitered in the morning sun along Hardin, Montana’s Center Street, waiting for a bar to open. At precisely 9 a.m. a single Crow man, informally elected by his confederates, strolled across the street and entered a saloon. “Budweiser” he said, plunking a silver dollar on the bar. The bartender brought beer and change. Keeping his eyes on the white man behind the bar, the Crow pioneer drained the long neck bottle in seconds and left. Minutes later, Indian men in a festive mood filled the tavern. Those who remembered that date would refer to it for years as “the Big Day.”

Given a choice in 1953, less than one third of the Indian reservations voted wet. Those that remained dry included the Navaho, and other large reservations. More than 80 percent of all Indians on reservations would continue to live where liquor sale was prohibited. Those with drinking problems would be highly visible in the skidrow sections of mostly white cities. Drunken drivers would bloody the highways between dry reservations and border town bars. Car wrecks and cirrhosis of the liver would kill Indians at 4.4 times the national average. After an initial flurry of local option elections, most tribes left liquor control and policy to state governments.

Thirty years later, the U.S. Health Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs would list alcohol abuse and alcoholism as the number one killer in Indian Country. By 1986, alcohol abuse would account for 52 deaths per 100,000 Indians, compared to 7.8 deaths for non-Indians and 13 for other non-whites.

Today, the drug and alcohol-related mortality rate for Indians in Montana and Wyoming is 11 times the national average. Figures for other states with sizable Indian populations are nearly as grim.

In the early 1970s, Philip May, a graduate student at the University of Montana, based his doctoral thesis on research comparing Montana and Wyoming’s wet and dry reservations.

He found the long-term ( 15 to 20-year) effect of legalization was lower mortality rates from cirrhosis of the liver, motor vehicle accidents, homicide and suicide. In some individual comparisons of extremely similar reservations, wet tribes had 12 percent fewer alcohol-related deaths and 25 percent fewer alcohol-related fatal auto accidents.

May is now the most-quoted and perhaps best-respected scholar of Indian alcoholism issues. Married to a Pueblo Indian and often serving as a consultant to the Navaho and other tribes, Dr. May is a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque.

While legalization would appear a life-saving step toward normalization, 68 percent of the reservations remain dry for two powerful reasons: First, the short term (3 to 5-year) effect of legalization, which was documented by May on one reservation, was an immediate doubling of alcohol-related deaths. Second, May found that most Indians, including well-educated opinion leaders, believe the myth that Indians cannot hold their liquor; that they have a horrendous reaction to alcohol.

The notion that Indians are unable to metabolize alcohol as efficiently as whites has been a common folk belief since the 1700s. May says this idea is a major component of the “drunken Indian” stereotype and a common way of explaining the supposed differences in Indian and white behavior when drunk.

This folk belief was the basis of policy on both federal and local levels. Congress waited two decades after the repeal of the Twenty-First Amendment to extend the right to drink to Native Americans.

As late as 1973, research comparing the metabolic rates of Canadian Indians and Eskimos with whites in Edmonton, Alberta seem to confirm the myth. Researchers reported, “the natives were found to metabolize alcohol at a significantly slower rate than whites.”

Knowledgeable scientists found major flaws in the methods of the Alberta study. By 1976, a whole series of studies of Indian susceptibility to alcohol were published. Avoiding the errors that marred the Alberta study, new research consistently found Indians to metabolize alcohol at the same rate or faster than whites.

The myth persists, however, among Indian populations. A survey of Navajos found that nearly two-thirds believe Indians have a physical weakness for alcohol that whites do not have. Nearly two-thirds believe that even one drink is a bad thing, and 81 percent favored continued prohibition on the reservation.

Scientists may have discarded the myth but Indian politicians court votes on reservations, not in ivory towers. Perception is reality in tribal politics.

For this reason, May, long an advocate of legalization, applauds a recent trend toward prohibition in many Indian communities as a healthy challenge of the status quo. “The greatest gains to be made in this struggle will be made through policy,” he said. “Tribal governments trying prohibition realize that they must handle the problem themselves. They are taking the reins.”

Noting that more than half the Indian population is of school age or younger and that the last 20 years has produced “an impressive and growing cadre of Indian health and education professionals,” May says the time for an Indian counterattack on an old enemy has arrived.

He does not believe prohibition is the answer, but says it is a start. “Tribal leaders who once believed they were powerless are now saying we can and must do something,” he says.

A fresh wind of self-determination blows from the tundra of Alaska’s North Slope to the high plains of the lower 48 states. Pilots flying moose hunters into the Alaskan bush are warned that their planes may be confiscated if they are carrying liquor to certain native villages.

Two Montana college students, one a sun dance leader, the other son of a former tribal chairman, confronted the organizers of an end-of-school Indian club bash at a Billings night spot. “Aren’t you aware of the tragedy alcohol has brought our people?” one asked. The next day, posters advertising the celebration vanished.

Cheyenne River Sioux voted to rid their reservation of drugs and alcohol by the year 2000. Tribal leaders will join police in submitting to random drug tests.

Cheyenne River tribal chair-man Wayne Ducheneaux says, “The people have said, “If you want to drink, do it somewhere else.”

Several Plains tribes are considering laws enabling them to arrest and incarcerate pregnant women whose drinking threatens the lives and development of the babies within their wombs. “We are almost certain a law protecting babies carried by Indian mothers could stand a court test,” Cheyenne River Tribal Attorney Mark Van Norman says.

The Rosebud Sioux closed a city-owned liquor store in the reservation town of Mission. White merchants and city officials fought the closing because it cost the town government its main source of revenue, more than $150,000 in annual profits. After the shutdown, Mayor Ray Fernen continued to sell liquor from his home. Fernen was arrested and served a year in prison.

Kotzebue, one of the larger native American communities in Alaska, outlawed the sale of alcohol recently and last year noted a 40 percent decrease in assaults, sexual assaults, homicide and suicide.

Highway death tolls and alcohol-related mortality have long been the most-quoted figures in Indian country. Statistics, however, were not enough to involve tribal governments in the problem. The immensity of the crisis disheartened both bureaucrats and politicians.

Jerry Cordova, tribal affairs specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Albuquerque, N.M. said, “Alcohol and drug abuse have long been one of those other problems, a problem we were going to address if we got everything else done. Now a realization is dawning that you are not going to improve anything until we address the booze and drug problem.”

Nowhere did the realization dawn so brightly as in Alkali Lake, British Columbia, where an affable Canadian Cree headman joined the ranks of heroes who have confronted the enemy and led their people to victory.

In agency towns, reservation hamlets and fishing camps from the Arctic to the Mexican line, Andy Chelsea is a movie star, a sought after speaker and hero of brown-skinned children who follow him down dusty streets, asking for his autograph. In Albuquerque and Anchorage, Muddy Cluster and Pine Ridge, Gallup and Lame Deer, social service professionals talk of the “miracle of Alkali Lake” and portray Chelsea as savior of his band and symbol of hope in a land of despair.

Alkali Lake is a remote Cree village in British Columbia’s interior. Locals once called it “Alcohol Lake.” Bootleggers operated openly and Chelsea was one of their best customers. No home was untouched by alcohol abuse. “We had an alcoholism rate of 95 percent,” Chelsea says.

But Chelsea whipped his own alcoholism and marshaled the forces of law, tradition, and band unity to rid the village of its blight.

Peer pressure, love and intimidation forced others into treatment for alcoholism. An alcoholic priest was expelled from the community and a merchant who profited from the sale of alcohol was driven out of business. Bootleggers met hostile reception. Alcoholics who left the village for treatment returned to find their homes freshly painted and renovated by friends and clansmen. The village’s Alcoholics Anonymous chapter showered gifts and praise on recovering alcoholics at special AA birthday parties. Villagers who continued to drink found themselves unwelcome at social events and traditional ceremonies.

Employers offered alcoholic workers a choice; seek treatment or leave. “Our alcoholism rate dropped to 5 percent,” Chelsea reports.

U.S. film maker Phil Lucas chronicled the Alkali Lake story in the documentary “The Honor of All.” Today, copies of that film can be found in the most remote hamlets and Chelsea is in demand as a speaker from the Yukon to the Rio Grande.

If the Alkali Lake story was not the inspiration for the spirit of self-determination that spread in the Alaskan bush in the late 1970s, it was the embodiment of an idea whose time had come. Allakaket was one of many villages where local officials were frustrated in their attempt to mitigate a plague of alcohol-related suicides, homicides, assaults, rapes and drownings.

Allakaket village officials attempted to ban alcohol through a municipal ordinance. When the state’s attorney general ruled that the village did not have the authority under state law to enact prohibition, the villagers turned to Tanina Chiefs Corporation (TCC) for help.

TCC contracts for social services and provides legal expertise to a federation of 43 villages, including Allakaket. Most native villages have two governments: a municipal council operating under state law and a tribal council deriving its power from federal law. TCC attacked the problem on both fronts.

Mike Wallery, TCC lawyer, recalls, “Tanina Chiefs crusaded for option laws, giving villages the right to ban the sale and importation of alcohol.”

The law was less than satisfactory. Local option prohibition outlawed sale and introduction of liquor into a community, but did not ban possession. “We wanted to get to the bootleggers,” Wallery said, “but under the state law, a shed full of whiskey wasn’t evidence enough for an arrest.”

“Damp” but not dry, villages sought stronger Controls through the federal Indian liquor laws. While some native advocates lobbied the legislature for a law banning possession, others went for even stricter federal regulation.

“They wanted to outlaw not just possession but consumption, too,” Wallery said. “They wanted to make it against the law to be drunk in the villages.”

Another problem was the lack of state troopers or local police to enforce state laws in the back country. “As a practical matter, the laws could not be enforced,” Wallery said.

Finally, many village leaders were wary of the way their relatives might be treated in state courts. “A number of studies have shown that natives draw sentences three times as stiff as non-natives,” Wallery said.

Allakaket’s tribal government used federal statutes to frame its own prohibition and prosecute offenders in tribal court. Prosecuting its own offenders rather than relying on white courts was a momentous change, Wallery said.

“Instead of a system in which white men say, ‘You have done something wrong and we are going to punish you,’ we have a system in which native people are saying, ‘This kind of behavior is unacceptable,’ ” Wallery said. “It means the village owns the problem. Once they claim ownership of the problem, they have a chance to control it.”

©1990 Roger Clawson

Roger Clawson, on leave from the Billings (Mt.) Gazette, is writing about alcohol abuse by Indians.