Bethel’s alcohol stores are affecting the entire region, and it’s up to the tribes to do something about it. That’s the message from a tribal gathering held in Bethel on Wednesday. Representatives from more than a dozen tribes across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta came together to share how their communities have been affected since Bethel started selling alcohol last spring.
But before the meeting began, a tragedy underlining its purpose struck. On Wednesday morning, a woman was thrown from a snowmachine and died. Alaska State Troopers responded to the crash west of Akiachak on the Gweek River trail.
The driver was intoxicated, and at about the time he was being charged with a DUI and criminally negligent homicide, the meeting in Bethel was beginning. Tribal members - one after another - stood up and shared their stories about how their villages have been affected since Bethel started selling alcohol.
“The bootlegging issue has increased," said Nick Duney, Tribal Council President of Marshall, a dry village.
“Kids are depressed, walking around like they have no hope. Gunshots heard outside of my house multiple times. Neighbors that are always drinking," said Kimberly Smith, Substance Abuse Prevention Coordinator in Akiak, another dry village.
“Since I started in December," said Steven Andrew, an Atmautluak Tribal Police Officer, “I’ve already got one locker filled with empty bottles of booze. I can’t even count how many bottles I’ve taken away so far.”
At one point, Andrew apologized for pausing during his speech, saying he’d only gotten three hours of sleep the night before after responding to a call involving alcohol.
The testimony continued. People shared stories of domestic violence increasing, of people drinking and dying from exposure, of children being taken from their parents, and of suicide. The problems, they said, have gone up since Bethel opened its alcohol stores.
Harold Napoleon, of the Native Village of Paimute, summed up the meeting by saying that, “You cannot have a liquor store in Bethel and have it not affect every single village in the region. The result is always people dying, being beat up, abused, neglected, or dead.”
There were solutions offered, but nothing voted on. Solutions included hiring more law enforcement officers, collecting data on rising social ills, and even suing the City of Bethel.
Robert Henderson with the Alaska Attorney General’s office also offered a way to help through empowering tribal courts. He explained how tribes can form an agreement with the state, like Anvik did in January, to send low-level criminal cases to tribal court instead of state court. Those cases often involve alcohol.
The group also heard an update on the Emmonak Women’s Shelter from Lenora Hootch. The community voted to legalize alcohol in October, and Hootch says that issues similar to what the villages around Bethel are seeing are also appearing in Emmonak and its surrounding villages.
“We’re seeing the rates of domestic violence have risen. We’ve had more suicides. The vandalism has risen,” she told the room.
Governor Walker’s Rural Affairs Advisor, Gerad Godfrey, attended the meeting and said he could bring the consensus of what the group decides to the Governor’s ears.
The meeting will reconvene Thursday at the Bethel Cultural Center to vote on how to address the villages’ alcohol issues. The group will also discuss Senator Lyman Hoffman’s proposal to create a new kind of energy borough in the region under Senate Bill 18.