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Tension, misunderstanding arise over Yakama alcohol ban

YAKIMA, Wash. - The Yakama nation's reservationwide alcohol ban went into effect Sept. 17, and the tribe has faced its first legal hurdle in district court in Yakima.

The state of Washington, which filed suit against Yakama Chief Judge Rory Flintknife and two other tribal defendants, responded to the tribe's legal plea for dismissal. Counsel for the attorney general's office presented evidence Dec. 6 that the suit is legal and should not be dismissed.

It will be several weeks before a decision is returned.

Court proceedings were set in motion when the state sued the tribe Sept. 19 to block enforcement of the ban against non-tribal members who did not vote on the alcohol resolution and who have no say in tribal government.

So far the tribe has not enforced the ban. Instead, it applied to the federal government to uphold its obligation to exclude from the reservation "the use of ardent spirits" as cited under Article 11 of the tribe's original treaty.

The tribe expects a decision from the Department of Justice on the legality of federal enforcement over non-tribal members later this month.

In the meantime, the state objects to the potential use of federal agencies to implement the ban. Assistant state Attorney General Jerry Ackerman says the open portion of the reservation is, by legal definition, a non-Indian community and that community members are therefore within their legal rights to sell alcohol.

Citizens in the three main towns located within the reservation object to the alcohol ban in both principle and practice. Petitions are being circulated to take to Congress next spring. Educational meetings are being held by the newly formed Citizens StandUp Committee to inform the community about the situation.

Of the two state licensed liquor stores on the reservation, one has gone out of business and the other moved off reservation to a town nearby. Two main grocery stores in the area have honored the ban and removed all alcoholic beverages from their shelves.

Approximately 47 other businesses - bars, taverns and convenience stores - continue to sell liquor, beer and wine. Some are owned by tribal members. Most are not. Most of the businesses contained within the 1.5 million acre reservation are located in Toppenish, Wapato and Harrah. Each of the towns is situated on predominantly fee simple, private land and the population is, by far and away, non-Indian.

Of the entire estimated 29,000 population of the reservation, 6,300 are enrolled Yakama members.

To the townspeople, the ban is secondary. What riled them is the ability of the tribe to pass a resolution that affects the town. For them the issue is not liquor, it's jurisdiction.

"If they want to put a ban on their own people, I sort of admire them for that to take that stand," says Toppenish mayor Al Hubert. "But my feeling is that they do not have jurisdiction over non-Indians on private land owning private businesses."

For the tribe, the ban is about making a positive difference in people's lives.

"We're talking about it as survival of our children," says Marlene Hunt, maintenance manager for the tribe. "We have children that are being abandoned and neglected by their parents and fetal alcohol syndrome is becoming generational.

"We know we have problems with alcohol such as sexual abuse, domestic violence, the murders that have happened ... the suicides. But we never talk about that.

"The ban's like a campaign. It's raising awareness."

Hunt, who lost her father, two nieces and a granddaughter to alcohol-related deaths on the reservation says she has been surprised at how Toppenish townspeople continued to view the ban as simply an economic and legal issue. Like many other tribal members, Hunt finds it difficult to understand why non-Indians don't understand that alcohol is, by law, prohibited on the reservation and that all the tribe is doing is implementing a ban that has been on the books for generations.

Alcohol started being sold on the reservation in 1953 when Congress repealed laws making it discriminatory and illegal to refuse the sale of alcohol to Indians. Since that time, tribal members have seen a steady increase in domestic abuse, violent crimes, fetal alcohol syndrome and alcohol-related deaths.

Indian Health Service reports that 78 percent of traffic fatalities on the Yakama reservation over the last six years were alcohol related in comparison to the rest of the state with 39 percent.

In order to implement a change in the downward spiral of health and general well-being of the tribe, in 1997 the general council came up with a 10 year vision, a strategic plan to guide the tribe's social and economic growth for the next decade. In three years the tribe built a casino, a tribal sawmill and opened a tribal retail store. A golf course and convention center were in the works. Tribal employment was rising, as was per capita income.

"That was the type of economy we wanted to have here," says Jack Fiander, chairman of the tribal council's legislative committee. "But the dang thing is, we were sort of creating this economy and the only place people had to spend it was on taverns and lounges. ... And we're not talking about places where you got white wine glasses clinking and nice conversation. Most of them are pretty hard core.

"It was kind of counterproductive to the health of the tribe."

But opponents to the ban, including many tribal members, say the ban is not going to keep people from drinking. Many fear that a dry reservation will simply force members to drive further for their liquor, increasing the dangers of DUI's and accidents.

Lewis Underwood, a tribal member and recovering alcoholic says he fears alcoholic friends will end up panhandling in Yakima for booze, subject to all sorts of violence.

"And after I looked into the legal part of it I found out that once the federal government comes in and sets enforcement, there will be some pretty hefty penalties for possession or consumption of alcohol on the reservation," says Underwood. "I know a lot of people on the reservation, non-Indian and Indian. And I didn't like the thought of seeing them put in jail because of the disease of alcoholism."

On the other side of the fence in Toppenish, Wapato and Harrah, the economic and legal issues trigger emotions just as alcoholism and its related problems stir many tribal members.

At stake are the livelihood of hundreds, even thousands of people in this rural section of high rolling desert. Direct unemployment from alcohol-related businesses is the just part of the picture. Second to agriculture, tourism is the biggest income producing industry in the region. Even the neutral Toppenish Chamber of Commerce admits the ban will negatively impact tourism dollars.

"This place will become a ghost town," says Elaine Willman, a Toppenish resident and grant writer for the tribe.

But economics aside, the main problem people talk about is the big "J" - jurisdiction.

Motivated by the fear of tribal government intrusion into their lives, residents like Rusty Jones are becoming activists. A motel owner in Toppenish, Jones is now president of the newly formed Citizens StandUp Committee.

He even painted his house a dazzling red, white and blue and speckled it with stars before he hit the educational circuit around the reservation, lecturing about the ban and its implications.

"We tell everybody this is not about race or culture," says Jones. "It's strictly about governance. We choose not to be governed by nondemocratic, sovereign government. We have no voice and no vote and that' s our big objection."

Jones says he anticipates the organization will have at least 12,000 to 15,000 signatures on their "no voice, no vote" governance petition to take to Congress in March.

But more troubling than any meeting, petition or difference of opinion, is the growing schism between townspeople and tribal members. Division is always a difficult matter. In this case it's made worse because most of the people in the area are either friends or related to one another by blood or marriage.

Some people accuse the ban of being a vindictive backlash from the tribe over rejection of a tribally proposed alcohol tax last year. Others see it as a bid for total political control by the tribe.

"We had approximately 33 or 34 Yakama people coming to our meetings," says Jones. " But very shortly they didn't show up anymore. And, because they're friends, we asked them what happened. And they said they could not attend the meetings. They had been threatened with retribution if they did."

With the storm of opinions, emotions and speculations swirling around the issue; with a few tavern owners talking about packing guns for fear of tribal alcohol raids and arrests; with rumors flying of tribal police staking out alcohol joints; with all that is at stake, Toppenish mayor Al Hubert says communication between the towns and the tribal council is critical.

Although the city council and mayor have issued repeated requests for meetings with tribal chairman Lonny Selam and the tribal council since the repeal of the alcohol tax in January, according to Hubert, they have had no close connection with the tribe.

"When it come down to the alcohol ban, they just didn't want to talk to us about it at all," says Hubert.

The mayor also proposed land and jurisdictional swaps to the tribe, but received no reply.

"It's my commitment that I'm never going to stop trying to talk with them," he says. "I feel it's very important. We've done a lot of other things with the tribe as far as putting in sewer and water out to their casino and other places n their land. and we've sort of worked together on some things.

"We're so close, that cooperation has to happen. And I feel we can do it ourselves if we just set down and talk about it."