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Fight Against Alcohol Becomes Fight Over Indians' Rights

The Yakama Nation's ban on all liquor sales angers non-Indian residents, who far outnumber tribal members.


TOPPENISH, Wash. — In an aggressive exercise of Native American political jurisdiction, the powerful Yakama Nation in central Washington state has adopted a comprehensive alcohol ban that threatens to shut down taverns and liquor stores in three towns inside the reservation--where non-Indian residents have vowed a fight.

Although several tribes nationwide have prohibited alcohol sales, the move last month by the Yakama--overseers of a reservation that at 2,000 square miles is bigger than Rhode Island--is one of the first to apply to a primarily nonnative population.

The move is important in light of the large number of reservations that in recent years have become more urbanized, their residents often including as many non-Indians as tribal members.

On the Yakama reservation, more than 20,000 of the 25,000 people living there do not belong to the tribe. Conflict has become almost inevitable as tribes such as the Yakama attempt to assert what they see as their historic treaty rights, on issues ranging from zoning authority and taxation to water rights and environmental regulation.

The crackdown on alcohol sales here has raised a question with far-reaching consequences for reservations, which make up 50 million acres, or 2% of the U.S. landmass. A century of treaties and the U.S. Constitution make Native American tribes sovereign governments on their reservations. But how much authority do those tribal governments hold over non-Indians who live on those reservations?

In Idaho, a coalition of 23 cities, counties and school districts is fighting the Nez Perce tribe's attempt to impose a 1.5% tax on construction within the 765,000-acre reservation--an area that includes eight cities in north central Idaho. The Nez Perce have been militant players in water and environmental issues affecting communities throughout the Pacific Northwest.

In Montana, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes have proposed taking jurisdiction over water rights for all people on the Flathead Indian Reservation--including rights now administered by the state. And the Crow tribe is seeking a 4% resort tax similar to one recently upheld by a federal appeals court in a case involving the Navajo Nation.

In court cases over the years, tribes generally have been found to have little or no criminal jurisdiction over nontribal members. But the issue of civil regulation remains an area of legal conflict.

The issue is particularly confusing on reservations such as the Yakama, where federal law opened up lands in the early part of the century to non-Indian homesteading. Many so-called deeded lands have been privately owned for generations and technically are not Indian lands. However, Indians do exercise some legal jurisdiction within the entire perimeter of their reservations, legal analysts say.

Sovereignty Issue Dates to Treaties

"Going back to the time of the treaties," said John Echohawk, director of the Native American Rights Fund in Colorado, "it didn't take the United States very long to start backing away from them. . . . They started an assimilation policy designed to break up the tribes and their land holdings."

But the tribes, Echohawk said, "are here to stay forever, as sovereign governments and part of the system of federal, state and tribal governments."

Toppenish Mayor Al Hubert worries that the Yakama alcohol ban may be only the beginning. "If they're allowed to do this, then other things are going to start coming--they'll want property tax or something else. I want something to show me that United States citizens will not be under the jurisdiction of an Indian tribe."

The issue has been particularly virulent in Washington state, which is home to 27 independent tribal governments--many of them encircling the affluent suburbs north and west of Seattle. About a quarter of Tacoma lies within the Puyallup reservation.

The Yakama Nation, a confederation of 14 tribes and bands whose ancestral lands once ranged over a third of Washington, also recently raised alarm bells in Toppenish, Wapato and Harrah--mostly white and Latino farm towns with property owned for generations by non-Indians--with its proposal to take over the local electric utility.

But the tribe is painting its ban on the sale and use of liquor, which took effect Sept. 17, as an issue less about sovereignty than about the devastating effects of alcoholism on tribal members.

Jack Fiander, a lawyer and tribal council member, has led the alcohol ban campaign. He said the Yakama leadership first became aware of the extent of alcohol's effect on the tribe in 1982, when a research project documented an alarming incidence of fetal alcohol syndrome on the reservation.

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