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Feeling the pinch

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Gas prices on the rise as customers change routines

CANASTOTA, N.Y. - No longer is ''good for the week'' a phrase that commuters share. Now it's how much is it to go from point A to point B?

''They're still filling up, but the quantity is way down,'' said Don Kallestewa, Shiwi, owner of the Chevron gas station in Zuni, N.M. ''They're just filling up enough to get from point A to point B, but not the whole tank like they used to.''

All across the country, gas prices continue to climb. Most are well over the $4 mark, while some still dangle just under. With a dwindling economy and the struggle to make ends meet, the pinch at the pump is becoming more than travelers care to handle.

Kallestewa, whose price display read $4.05 for regular unleaded June 25, said his daily spread sheets have revealed an average daily drop from 1,000 - 1,800 to 800 - 1,200 gallons per day.

''There's not much I can do,'' he said. ''I've been trying to keep the price down for my customers, but I'm a small business, not a franchise like the other two [gas stations in town].''

Travelers are changing their routines and incorporating better time management, yet still feeling the impact from limiting their travel because their new budget doesn't allow it.

''You have to be more conscious about [traveling] - do I really need to take this trip?'' said Tom Kelt, a native of Texas and member of the Army currently based in Pennsylvania on a recent visit to New York. ''You look for bargains elsewhere.''

Kelt was shopping at a nearby outlet mall when he talked with Indian Country Today. There are some gas stations that offer discounts if you get groceries from the store - which he takes advantage of. ''You'd be foolish not to.''

In Colorado, there has been a decrease in out-of-state auto tourism but an increase in chartered bus traffic, according to Darwin Whiteman, manager of tribally owned Ute Mountain Travel Center, near the tribe's casino.

Summer vacations are quickly becoming obsolete, especially for those families who would go recreational vehicle traveling.

''We're losing them because of high gas prices,'' said Bonnie Lopez, manager of the tribally owned Ute Mountain Casino RV Park, referring to a usage rate of 90 percent three years ago and 70 percent two years ago. This year, RV use at the park is at 60 percent capacity.

Trends are changing throughout the United States and the effects are being felt even more on reservations. Not all tribes operate gas stations; but those that do try to do their part to help tribal members.

The effects are ill-felt even in Oklahoma, where oil and gas industries are widely known. The tradition of attending pow wows is dwindling. This summer has seen the numbers of vendors and visitors drop at many of the events - specifically the bigger ones.

Vendors are attending smaller pow wows closer to home instead of having to travel 400 miles round-trip. Krystal Caesar, Pawnee and Kiowa, sells beadwork and German silver metalwork at pow wows with her parents, brother and sister. The family originally planned to sell at the annual Pawnee Indian Veterans Homecoming and Powwow, but opted to stay closer to their home in Anadarko, Okla. Instead of all the fill-ups and the worrying about a place to stay, they attended annual celebrations of the Kiowa Tia-Piah Society near Carnegie, Okla., and the Oklahoma Tia-Piah Society near Elgin, Okla.

Dealing with the rising gas prices would be easy if there was a gas station, a grocery store, hardware shop, and all-purpose retail shop within a block - but no one lives in fantasyland.

Albert Northrup, Hopi, acting supervisor of the Hotevilla Co-Op Store in Hotevilla, Ariz., said the hike in gas prices is putting a huge strain on local communities.

The Hopi reservation is located approximately 120 miles from Flagstaff, where most Hopi villagers acquire daily-needed commodities. Residents are reducing the number of times each week they make that trip as the price outside Northrup's place of employment read $4.25 for regular unleaded and $5.15 for diesel.

''We call Flagstaff the land of plenty,'' he said. ''A lot of people used to go to town two to three times a week, but now they're going once or less.''

The reduction doesn't just hurt the villagers, but also the retail shops in Flagstaff and even the gas stations.

''We usually average 8,200 - 8,300 gallons per week, but now it's taking more than a week for us to sell it. People just aren't venturing off the reservation,'' Northrup said.

Anne Kriefall, of Red Creek, N.Y., lives in a rural area where she's unable to carpool and public transportation is not an option.

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''I used to fill up all the time. Now I never do,'' she said. ''I put in a budgeted amount - let's say $50 - and as far as that gets me, that is as far as I go.''

Kriefall does not take advantage of any of the discounts stations may be offering because they are too far away.

''How good of a deal is it if I have to drive 30 miles to the mart, as opposed to 10 miles [to the closest gas station]? You have to wonder - am I losing out?''

Reed Zephier, Oglala/Assiniboine, belongs to two tiospaye (extended families) on Pine Ridge near Wambli and in Poplar, Mont., and attends Sun Dances at both, but gas prices have made it much more difficult to travel. The ceremony at Poplar was June 11 - 15 and would have cost $600 for car rental/gas, compared to $400 a year ago.

''The only way I was able to go was when a relative in Tucson going there said, 'Why don't you just jump in. We'll pick you up in Denver,''' he said.

The Tucson relative is a physician, he said, and otherwise probably couldn't have afforded the motor home's $180 cost per fill-up.

''In Indian country, we have all our ceremonies on our home turf; but a lot of us live off-reservation, so people may have to save more to travel,'' he said.

Zephier also questioned why Sun dances do not have the same tax advantages as other religious organizations.

''We can tell our customers are price-conscious and concerned - and we are as well,'' said Kevin Connelly, manager of business operations and development for the Oneida Indian Nation in New York. He oversees 12 convenience stores/gas stations run by the OIN. (The OIN also owns Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian Country Today.)

Kelt considers the rising cost of gas to have a bigger problematic impact on society - not just his wallet.

''What are you going to do - have senior citizens in nursing homes leave to work 40 hours to make ends meet? And you have to consider the bigger picture - you may start to see a rise in criminally minded activity just to put food on the table.''

In the Northwest, prices are hovering around $4.30 per gallon. Julie Schornack, manager at the Muckleshoot Market and Deli, reports that there is the same volume in gas sales, but spending in the store has dropped.

''Money is going into the tank instead of the candy bar, gum or espresso,'' she said.

Everyday commuters aren't just those heading to work. What about the effect on those heading to school on buses, or those who are getting close to retirement? The rise in prices - not just gas - has likely eaten away at some of the savings.

Sipaulovi resident and independent cultural project consultant Susan Secakuku, Hopi, said her driving has definitely been reduced.

''The high gas prices make me think twice, really. I'm prioritizing more and asking myself, 'Can I send a fax or e-mail or make a phone call rather than driving?'''

Secakuku said her business requires that she travel at least 60 miles to each project, making the high fuel prices additionally taxing.

Northrup added that the infrequency of travel to border towns off the reservation also impacts Hopi residents who walk to nearby towns. Because these individuals rely on drivers passing by for a lift, the infrequency of commuters is forcing the pedestrians to walk a greater distance or forgo the trip altogether.

Bonnie Secakuku, staff assistant to Hopi Chairman Ben Nuvamsa, said the high prices are significantly impacting every aspect of the reservation including school bus transportation, tribal travel and individual lives.

''I don't go unless I have to. It has definitely changed my way of doing what I need to do,'' Secakuku stated. ''I think we're using the local stores more for our daily needs, because we can't just run to one of the border towns anytime we need something like we used to.''

''I'm approaching retirement and the more I consider it, the more I realize I can't afford it,'' Kriefall said.

Information for this article was provided by Indian Country Today correspondents Carol Berry, Brian Daffron, Rebecca Jacobs, Jessica Nicastro and Richard Walker.