2000Explanatory Reporting

Bane of the Blackfeet

Eric Newhouse
Tribune Projects Editor
August 22, 1999,
Part 8

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Bane of the Blackfeet
Alcoholism runs rampant among Native Americans, and residents of Montana's most populous reservation are no exception. The reasons are debated, but the staggering cost is undeniable.

Blackfeet Law Enforcement patrolman Joely Heavy Runner gives a field sobriety test to a motorist. -- (Tribune photo by Larry Beckner)

BROWNING -- As the patrol car rounded the corner behind Ick's Bar, Lorinda Grant dropped the quart bottle of beer she had been swigging -- but it was too late.

"Don't fool with my nerves, Jay," Grant told the officer as he put her in the police car. "I'm scared to go to jail. I've been hitting it hard for a month now, and I'm gonna go bananas without another drink.

"Why are you doing this to me?" she demanded, hands shaking and tears running down her cheeks.

Lorinda Grant

"I'm keeping you safe tonight so you'll be alive tomorrow," officer Jay Young Running Crane said.

As Grant was being booked for public intoxication at the Blackfeet tribal jail that Friday night, three others also were being jailed for alcohol-related offenses -- one for DUI, one for disorderly conduct and one for trespassing.

"If we didn't have such easy access to alcohol, there wouldn't be such problems," Young Running Crane said.

Native Americans in Montana -- most of whom live on one of seven Indian reservations -- comprise 7 percent of the state's population. But they suffer from alcoholism at a far greater rate than others.

While specific data isn't recorded for Montana, national statistics show that Native Americans have alcohol dependence rates three times higher than the national average.

Veterans Administration records show that 45 percent of the Indian vets were alcohol-dependent, twice the rate for non-Indian vets.

The Native American death rate for people ages 15-24 is 11.4 times higher than for other Americans, according to the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.

"The excess death of younger people is attributed to higher rates for homicide, suicide, accidents and death attributable to alcoholism," said a report done in 1994 by the center.

The Indian Health Service says that 17 to 19 percent of all Indian deaths are alcohol-related, compared with 4.7 percent for the general population.

"Alcohol or other drug addiction is culminating in the destruction of Native American populations," the report concluded.

Life on the street

In Browning, the number of bars has actually diminished.

There's a motel bar on the east side of town and a state liquor store downtown. Two downtown bars lock their doors and admit only favored patrons, but sell beer and liquor to go.

About 50 regulars buy booze from the three downtown outlets and drink in the alleys or "the jungle," a vacant lot with brush and trees beside one of the bars.

"I'm on the streets because I can't find a job and I'm an alcoholic," said Eula Kicking Woman, who said she is a University of Montana graduate and once worked for the Urban League and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

With a population of 1,170, according to the 1990 Census, Browning proper has about 50 street people who live on the bottle, officials say. Statistically, if Great Falls had a problem that severe, it would have more than 2,300 alcoholics on the street.

While most people on reservations live far more typical, sober lives, many acknowledge that the effects of booze have undermined their communities.

"Everyone on this reservation has been touched directly or indirectly by alcohol," said Herman Whitegrass, a chemical dependency counselor for the tribe. "In fact, most of us have relatives who are alcoholics, living on the street."

It's the alcoholics who provide most of the work for the reservation doctors, nurses, ambulance attendants, cops and jailers.

And it's their names that keep showing up on the police blotter.

Fred Guardipee

"A lot of those people we've almost raised in this jail," Police Chief Fred Guardipee said. "Many of them spend the winter with us."

Aldon Potts comes quickly to the chief's mind.

"I don't believe Aldon has ever spent more than three consecutive days outside of our jail," Guardipee said. "And when he's here and sober, he just runs this place."

Aldon Potts is arrested by officer Jay Young Running Crane after the manager of Ick's package store called police to report Potts was trying to break a window. --(Tribune photo by Larry Beckner)

As it turned out, Potts had been released from jail just hours before with a 10-day sentence suspended on condition of good behavior.

By suppertime, he was in `the jungle" trying to get a drink and in Ick's package store, where the clerk refused to sell him liquor.

And a little before midnight, he was arrested again. After threatening to punch out the arresting officer and after pushing the jailer around, he was held overnight in the drunk tank.

"This jail is really just a revolving door for drunks," Young Running Crane said. "They get a bed and breakfast for a couple of days, then they either get a suspended sentence or they bond out for about $40."

Medical reasons

Why is there so much drinking on the reservations?

Some doctors believe a predisposition to alcoholism is passed on genetically. One early study, for example, found that Indians have difficulty metabolizing alcohol.

However, that study was flawed, said Philip May, former chairman of the sociology department at the University of Montana and outgoing head of the University of New Mexico's Center on Alcoholism.

"All of the remaining studies of alcohol metabolism among Indians found Indians to metabolize alcohol as rapidly, or more rapidly, than matched controls who were non-Indian," May said.

Furthermore, Indians are uncomfortable with the medical model because it suggests alcoholism may be inevitable, said Dr. Kathleen Masis, behavioral health officer for the IHS in Billings.

"But being children of alcoholics predisposes people to alcoholism, whether or not it's inherited," she said. "Sons of alcoholics are four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves."

Cultural causes

Like many tribes, the Blackfeet never used drugs or alcohol, even during religious ceremonies, until white men introduced it in the mid 1800s, Whitegrass said.

"The fur trappers who introduced alcohol to the Indians were either alcoholics themselves or they used alcohol abusively," Masis said. "So Native American people learned to use alcohol to get drunk."

That attitude was reinforced by the Indian Prohibition Action of 1832, which prohibited the sale of alcohol to Indians. It was repealed in 1953.

Bootleggers abounded, and Indians learned to drink quickly, behavior that has been called the "gulping mechanism."

"They consumed alcohol quickly so that it would be in them, not in their possession where they could be caught with it," Masis said.

Contributing to the problem was the loss of the Indian way of life.

"Just look at the elimination of the buffalo, which destroyed their economic base -- and that's only 100 years ago," Masis said. "Then look at their lost language, the boarding school experience, and the other abuses ... ask yourself what whites would have done."

The prevalence also explains why traditional treatment hasn't done much good, she said.

"You can't just send everyone to treatment and expect them to come back and be sober when all their families, friends and social support systems are still using alcohol," Masis said.

Darrell Norman, owner of the Lodgepole Gallery in Browning, said his father drank to get drunk, a behavior he adopted.

"No one ever taught us to drink in moderation," he said. "We had no role models."

One bad New Year's Eve convinced him he must change, so he quit drinking for seven years, Norman said.

"Then my fiancée looked at me and asked what I was afraid of -- the substance or myself.

"Now I can enjoy a good glass of wine or a microbrew. But I have also learned there's a limit beyond which I cannot go."

Spiritual loss

Clifford Calf Tail

Loss of the traditional Indian religion has led to a spiritual gap that some fill with alcohol.

"There's more young people on the streets than there were 10 or 15 years ago," said Clifford Calf Tail, one of the street people of Browning.

"But we need to be healed spiritually before we can be healed physically," he said.

Without a strong spiritual underpinning, Calf Tail said, Native Americans are powerless before the poverty, illness, premature death and abuse so common in the community.

Earl Old Person, chief of the Blackfeet Nation, has worried about the increase in alcoholism during his years of tribal leadership. He was a member of the tribal business council for about four decades and has been chief since 1978.

Earl Old Person

"Young people are seeking something," Old Person said. "A lot of them are doing traditional sweats to cleanse themselves and give themselves more strength. I think it's really helping our young people."

But the chief, now 70, said it has become harder for the elders to communicate with the young people.

"Some of our young people are afraid to talk to our elders, and some of our elders are afraid to talk to our young people because they are afraid they won't be accepted," he said.

"But when we keep these things to ourselves, it only hurts us."

Bleak economy

"There's no work around here," complained Garrett Many White Horses, a frequent resident of "the jungle."

"If I had a job, I'd get my wife back," he said. "That's why families break up."

Garrett Many White Horses

Native Americans make up about 7 percent of the state's population, but Indian adults received 26 percent of the state's welfare checks two years ago when Montana began its push to get welfare recipients back onto the job.

As the welfare rolls were cut in half in the past few years, Native Americans found it no easier to get jobs. Today, they receive 42 percent of the adult welfare checks.

"We don't have jobs, and our people need work," Old Person said. "Fighting fires isn't pleasant, but our people do it to help their families.

"A lot of people think the Blackfeet Nation just wants handouts, but what we really want is jobs. Our people would work if it was there."

Search for solutions

Masis of the IHS also links unemployment and alcoholism.

"Someone who is employed, has a sober spouse and is supported by a strong social support system stands a better chance of success," she said. "In fact, employment is one of the best predictors of success in sobriety."

Young Running Crane sees some hope in the D.A.R.E. program, which is teaching students in Browning schools to avoid alcohol and drugs.

And he keeps a strict eye on his own teen-age daughter, monitoring her activities and friends as he cruises the streets in his patrol car.

Masis has seen a growing sobriety movement on the reservations.

"There's a lot of hope," she said. "I've heard that Native Americans are one of the fastest-growing segments of the American sobriety movement, which is one of the most powerful forces of our time."

On the Blackfeet Reservation, Whitegrass teamed up with June Tatsey, the tribe's medical director, and Gerald Cooper, a security officer for the Blackfeet Tribal Hospital, to raise public awareness of the danger of alcohol by creating a series of sobriety marches.

At the first march several years ago, Whitegrass remembers stopping at each street corner and blowing sweetgrass smoke to the four compass points, called smudging, to purify the streets.

"And I remember passing a big beer truck with the driver hiding his face in shame, so we smudged the beer truck, too," Cooper said.

Several hundred people joined them on that first march, and each has grown a little bigger since.

Out of the sobriety marches grew the idea of banning alcohol sales on the reservation during the North American Indian Days in mid-July.

"It was a gut-wrenching decision," said Tatsey, adding that she was terrified there would be a huge accident on the road to Cut Bank, a town off the reservation where the bars were still open.

Earlier this year, it became obvious that something had to be done.

"In seven weekends, we lost seven of our children, one each weekend," Cooper said.

Ultimately, the tribal council bought the notion and passed a resolution barring all sales of alcohol on the reservation July 8-12.

Later, Tatsey, Whitegrass and Cooper were relieved to find that crime and accident rates dropped dramatically during that period.

"We, as Indian people, have to solve our own problems," Tatsey said. "People have come to us with well-meaning solutions, but until we're willing to address our own problems, nothing will have changed."

Now, they're gearing up for a push to make the whole reservation dry -- permanently.

"We're all in the health-care field, and we're looking at the future of our Blackfeet people," Tatsey said. "At one time, we were a strong, healthy people. Now we need a positive environment for our children, so the Blackfeet Nation can be healthy again."

Whitegrass noted that well-meaning efforts like welfare actually have made things worse.

"Some people need the welfare system to get a step up, but other people get stuck in it," Whitegrass said. "I believe the welfare system has disabled us by enabling people to continue their destructive behaviors."

Change must come quickly, Cooper said.

"Are we going to walk into the new millennium with our heads held high, or are we going to stagger in drunk?" he asked. "It's our choice."