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Perils of Prohibition: Drowning the past in rural Alaska

Craig Medred

EDITOR'S NOTE: For three decades, alcohol has anchored the debate about the future of rural Alaska. That liquor and homebrew spread havoc in villages across the state is undeniable, but the evidence seems clear that the effort to stamp out booze with an Alaska version of Prohibition hasn't stopped the abuse, or the misery that often surfaces in its wake. In this ongoing series, Alaska Dispatch examines the failures of the state's war on alcohol and why a better, but more difficult solution is to address the many reasons people abuse alcohol in the first place.

Harold Napoleon was a respected Alaska Native leader living in the small, coastal village of Hooper Bay when he killed his 4-year-old son in 1984. He beat the boy to death in a drunken rage. He has regretted it for every breathing moment since. He has said he was so drunk he does not remember what happened.

He confessed to murder, was sentenced to prison, and spent nine years behind bars. While in prison, he wrote a book titled "Yuuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being." The book argued Alaska Natives suffered from generations of trauma, and it helped make Napoleon a leading figure in efforts to address the many woes of rural Alaska:

The way many of us live now is abnormal, like caged animals. We are fed, housed, watered, cared for, but we are not free, and it is killing us.

This almost total dependence on others further undermines the already depressed spirit of many Native people. And the only way it can end is if we take back the responsibility of feeding, clothing and housing our people.

Napoleon is out of prison now and living in Anchorage. He works as the tribal administrator for the Native village of Paimiut, a place near Hooper Bay. He has been on parole for two decades.

At least twice, his parole has come close to ending, but he has been caught drinking and his parole has been extended. Earlier this summer, he failed to report to his parole officer as required, and there is now a warrant out for his arrest, said Kaci Schroeder, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Division of Corrections.

Efforts to reach Napoleon for this story to discuss why he can’t stay away from alcohol failed, but he has said he believes he suffers from a genetic defect that holds him hostage to booze.

He is not alone in this fear.

Into the void

Hooper Bay is a village that sprawls across low and barren rolling hills on the western edge of the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta hard against the Bering Sea. The U.S. Census of 1890 reported there were 138 people living in 14 homes here. They were tough and resilient people. They lived off the land, hunting seals and beluga whales from homemade skin kayaks; gathering berries from the surrounding uplands, killing waterfowl for food in the summer, trapping fur bearers for hides with which to make clothing.

It was a hard, hard life.

"I was born here in Hooper Bay on Jan. 6, 1900," Lena Smith remembered before her death in 1986. "My mother died right after I was born. They were going to let me die with my mother but my uncle took me. He wanted to take care of me. As I grew up I always thought that my uncle was my dad and that his wife was my mother. There was no milk in those days. They only fed me with the juice of the meat my uncle chewed for me.

"I had no sisters or brothers or uncles or even a grandma and grandpa as I was growing up. They had all died. I got married to Billy Smith and had two kids. During the cold midwinter months after a couple of years they both died. Then later I raised some other kids of my own. In those days lots of people used to die. We had no warm houses because we had no stoves during the cold winter months. Our windows were always iced over when the house was really cold. They used to put wood in the middle of the house and start the fire and warm up the house until the ice was melted on the windows and ceiling. We had no lights, only seal oil lamps."

Disease -- first diphtheria, then flu -- devastated Hooper Bay early in the 1900s. Then came the waves of white people. The Bureau of Indian Affairs established a school in 1909. The Catholic missionaries arrived in the late 1920s. The Jesuits would leave a long, disgusting history of sexual abuse in the community. The Protestant missionaries were not far behind the Catholics. The U.S. Post Office was established there in 1934, largely so the missionaries could maintain contact with the Lower 48.

Still, Hooper Bay remained a small, isolated place where life was a lot like it had always been. There were still only 307 people living there in 1950. The airport was built in 1954. It marked the beginning of radical change. A new school got built. The Public Health Service established a clinic. The Alaska Village Electric Cooperative brought power. The Alaska State Housing Authority began building homes for villagers.

By 1970 the little community named for the little bay on which it sits had grown to 490 people -- almost four times the number living a purely subsistence lifestyle there when the first whites stumbled on them not long before the start of the 20th century. And change came with increasing speed. Television arrived in the 1970s thanks to the state-funded Rural Alaska Television Network (RATNET).

Television opened a portal to the world. More technology would follow and quickly; first the Internet and then the cellphone, a device that is becoming almost as common in rural Alaska as a rifle for hunting.

Today, more than 1,100 people live in Hooper Bay. There is an impressive 74,000-square-foot, $30 million school that rises above the tundra like a space station. Nearby hills are littered with the remains of snowmachines and all-terrain vehicles. The homemade kayaks are long gone, replaced by more durable aluminum boats shipped in from Outside.

Parts of the city have sewer and water, and other parts are being connected to the system. There is a high-speed broadband provider so even those still hauling water and using honey buckets have speedy Internet access. By many standards, life in the community is better than ever. Certainly it is much easier than in Smith's day. And yet there are many there who drink to escape, even though it is illegal to have alcohol in the village.

Why do they do it?

"I don't know," said James Hoelscher, the veteran and plain-spoken Village Public Safety Officer with family ties to many who call Hooper Bay home.

But he has ideas, most of them converging around the belief that alcohol is the way many people learn to escape the pressures of life.

Hoelscher himself is an interesting story. He was born in Anchorage and spent most of his formative years there. He moved to Hooper Bay as a teenager. He was raised by his grandfather, who drank too much but regularly praised his grandson for his commitment to avoid drinking.

Hoelscher has been a law enforcement officer almost since he was old enough to pin on a badge. It has not been an easy job. He has been at it about 20 years in Hooper Bay, and in that time he has been involved in the investigation of three murders. The cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse number far more.

Hooper Bay is a village with problems.

Beth Edwards, who shot a documentary in the village, sees a people struggling to find their way into the future as the past closes behind.

Edwards is a 34-year-old filmmaker who grew up in Indiana. She began her career wanting to train a lens on the poorest community in America. Swayed by her Midwestern roots, she thought that likely to be a backwater area of Kentucky. Her research, however, pointed her to the Wade Hampton Census Area in far Western Alaska. She ended up in Hooper Bay just after the old school burned down in 2006. The fire was blamed on unsupervised children crawling underneath the elevated structure and starting a fire.

Many children appear in Edward's hour-long documentary -- "The Yup'ik Way." Edwards does almost no narration in the film. She simply points a camera at people and lets them talk. The youngsters talk about their desires for Chuck E. Cheese and McDonald's and their favorites movies: "Scooby Doo" and "We Are Marshall."

The documentary reflects the television is always on in some homes. Some people play Xbox. 

The elders who appear in the film talk about how times are changing, but how children need to hang on to their community. "They do want to keep their family here," a white woman working in the village volunteers. "About 80 percent of the village members here are on public assistance," adds the village administrator. The film captures a place caught between the past and the future.

Edwards films Shaun Murran, a bootlegger making homebrew in a five-gallon bucket. Later in the documentary, the audience sees Murran very distraught. But what the film does not make clear, and what Edwards said in a later interview with Alaska Dispatch, is that what hit Murran so hard was his batch of homebrew had been stolen.

"See, I could have made fifty bucks back there if I'd had my products all ready," he says to the camera.

This Murran is not the brash-talking young man who earlier told Edwards, "I'm a legend in these damn streets. I know how to survive."

Money, Hoelscher said, is one of the reasons people traffic in booze in Hooper Bay. Status clearly is another. So, too, the desire to use the chemical to lower the inhibitions of women and increase the opportunities for sex. 

Most people in Hooper Bay believe alcohol is bad. Residents long ago voted their community dry. Importing, selling, possessing or making alcohol is illegal. 

"It's basically prohibition," Hoelscher said. "There's good faith behind the law," but the drinking hasn't stopped. 

"(People) are going to get alcohol one way or the other," he said. "People know there is a want for it. The bootleggers are making a profit off it. The problem I've seen is that there's no social drinking. It's all binge drinking."

People who binge get extremely drunk, and then all hell breaks loose. Hoelscher has spent a couple decades cleaning up after them. Almost every major crime he has dealt with, like the death of Harold Napoleon's son -- now almost 30 years ago -- had a connection to alcohol in some way.

It is an old, old story in Alaska.

Bad models, illegal self-control

Alcohol has been a problem in Alaska almost forever. It was a problem for the Russians; it became a problem for the Americans who bought the territory. They, too, tried to control alcohol. It didn’t work. Sitka of the 1870s doesn’t sound that much different from parts of rural Alaska in the 2010s. The following was reported to U.S. officials not long after the purchase of the Alaska Territory from Russia:

The state of things in Sitka is in just as bad and disgraceful a state as can be imagined. There is no law or order of any kind and no means to enforce either. In the town every other house is a clandestine distillery; and in the Indian village every habituation is one. The prohibition of liquor importation has no other result, so far, but that of changing drunkards of ordinary stamp, Indians as well as white and half-breeds, into actual raving maniacs. Their home manufactured liquor is almost equal to rank poison.

The response of officials in the Southeast Alaska community was a crackdown, but in the patronizing manner of the time, the crackdown landed almost solely on the Native population, according to Stephen Conn, one of the authors of a book-sized study, "Alcohol Control Laws and the Alaska Native Population," written when he was a researcher at the University of Alaska Anchorage School of Justice in the 1980s. 

Alaska Natives, Conn said, never learned there was such a thing as social drinking. As Alaska grew and developed, he said, Natives witnessed the teetotaler prohibition of the Christian missionaries and the ribald drunken excesses of partying miners and soldiers.

All of those predominately white folk, Conn said, were in agreement on one thing: Natives couldn’t hold their liquor, and thus they should be somehow prevented from drinking.

"Alaska Natives were, in effect, taught that under the influence of alcohol they were incapable of controlling their own lives," Conn and fellow researcher Antonia Moras wrote. "It was implied, through the patterns of control and enforcement established over time, that only the presence of white legal authority could restrain Natives in the use of alcohol."

The legacy of this history can be seen in Hooper Bay today. People there believe drinking is wrong, Hoelscher said; even the drunks tell him that. But people actively try to keep others from quitting.

"The only way for it not to be wrong is for everybody to be doing it," he said. "That's the only way to make it right."

He doesn't know what it would take to break this cycle, but like so many others, he knows that what the state has been doing for three decades isn't working. A study of Alaska's War on Alcohol in the western part of the state financed by the U.S. Justice Department and completed in 2009 made that clear even if the study went unmentioned until now.

One of the criminologists who helped author the study argues that it now appears Alaska's attempt at prohibition only made matters worse. The goal of villages going dry was to reduce crime and accident injury rates. That didn't happen, said Daryl Wood, now at Washington State University.

What did happen was the creation of a new class of criminals: bootleggers. Some number of them were just poor people responding to financial realities. Alaska State Troopers say a bottle of booze bought for $10 in Anchorage can be resold for $150 in a rural area.

That sort of profit is a big temptation.

"I don't think these are bad people," Hoelscher said. Some of them are just trying hard to make a buck. Some want to self-medicate against the trying realities of life.

Thirty years ago, Conn warned this might happen. He made some telling observations about prohibition shortly after Gov. Jay Hammond convinced the Alaska Legislature it would be a good idea to encourage villages to vote themselves dry.

"The (prohibition) practices and policies requested by villagers in the years immediately following statehood may not be useful remedies in 1982 and in the future as rural and urban Alaska become more integrated by transportation and communication and as the legal culture of rural Alaska comes to more closely reflect the legal culture of urban Alaska," Conn warned. "Forty-six villages (now) see the new alcohol law as the necessary remedy. One hopes they are correct."

Most of those villages still cling to the remedy though there are no real indications it has made anything better. Hoelscher, who lives in one of those villages, said it is scary to let go for fear things might get even worse.

The only model for drinking in the village is binge drinking, he said. There is a legitimate fear that if alcohol was legally allowed in, there might be even more binge drinking. Hoelscher is himself a non-drinker, as are his wife and family.

"I don't know how to drink," he said, and he has no desire to experiment with learning. But, like most rural residents, he knows village binge drinkers who moved to Anchorage or the Lower 48 states, and changed their behavior. Instead of being binge drinkers, he said, they became social drinkers.

He has an idea as to why: "What is socially acceptable in the village is just not socially acceptable in Anchorage."

Statistics would indicate Anchorage residents drink too much, but those who get falling-down drunk at every social gathering get noticed by coworkers, friends and others, and not in a good way.

The drunken Indian

Even before 1989, when the Anchorage Daily News won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for a series of stories titled "People in Peril," the Alaska alcohol narrative has been defined by the "drunk Indian," an old, old American stereotype.

A lot of Alaskans, both non-Native and Native, have been happy to buy into this stereotype for years. Harold Napoleon is in some ways among them. He believes Alaska Natives lack the gene to properly break down alcohol.

The world might be a better place if only this were true. Scientists might be able to find a way to better treat the alcohol-abuse problems of the first Americans if there was a simple genetic switch. But scientific researchers say the reason a disproportionate number of Alaska Natives and American Indians engage in problematic binge drinking appears to be far more complex than genes.

Genetics influence all human behavior, but environment is often an even bigger factor. New research has shown that environment can sometimes even influence genes themselves.

READ MORE: PERILS OF PROHIBITION: ALASKA'S FAILED WAR ON BOOZE

When it comes to Native Americans and alcohol, it appears that the environment in which people are raised, the environment which instills their social and cultural values, is key, said Scripps Research Institute professor Cindy Ehlers, a leading authority on the subject.

"It's a complicated disorder," said Ehlers. "My study suggests Indians don't have any unique risks for alcohol dependence.... They just have more of the same risks as everyone else. It's just the combination of factors."  

In professional circles, Ehlers is credited with helping to end the "firewater myth."

"The firewater myth posits that Indians have a weakness for alcohol and that if they drink even small amounts, they become uncontrolled and aren’t able to handle drinking and subsequently develop alcohol addiction. What we were able to show conclusively is that this is absolutely not true and that if anything, Indians have a resistance to the effects of alcohol so that they can drink actually quite astronomical amounts of alcohol and not feel as intoxicated," she told the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in a 2012 interview. "What we’ve been able to show is that people who are at higher risk for developing alcoholism seem to have an inherent tolerance or a low level of response to alcohol. They need a lot more alcohol to feel intoxicated and so they’re more at risk for becoming a heavy drinker."

The heavy drinking, Ehlers said in an interview with Alaska Dispatch, becomes a huge problem when people are conditioned to the idea -- as they are in some Alaska villages -- the sole purpose of drinking alcohol is to get drunk, to get obliterated. Quitting drinking, always difficult, becomes even harder for people conditioned to believe they are genetically doomed to drink.

Ehlers is one of the few people in the world whose research is devoted entirely to studying alcohol use by American Indians and Alaska Natives. She is in the middle of a five-year, $3.6 million study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

One thing she has found -- which also supports the genetic studies concluding Natives aren't predisposed to alcohol problems -- is that Natives who start drinking as adults suffer far fewer problems with alcohol than those who start as teenagers. Of those drinking before the age of 13, she said, 85 percent develop a dependence on alcohol. For those who start drinking at age 21 or later, the number is 15 percent.

A big part of the reason appears to rest with how people grow up. Ehlers said her work has found that people who learn early that the purpose of drinking is to get drunk grow up thinking the purpose of drinking is to get drunk. She has begun working with some tribes Outside to try to get them to stop kids from drinking in their early teens, and then start teaching them about the dangers of alcohol in their later teens.

Before age 16, she said, it ought to be possible to just keep kids from getting booze. After age 16, she admitted, it gets a lot harder, so they should be taught about the dangers of drinking: the increase in accidents, the possibility of blackouts, the loss of inhibitions that can fuel sexual assaults, and more.

Hoelscher said one of his coworkers is now starting an alcohol awareness program in the Hooper Bay school. Nobody knows whether it will work, but Hoelscher said the program can't hurt.

When Napoleon started drinking is unclear. Repeated attempts to arrange an interview to sit down with him to discuss the issues raised in this story failed, though he remains a public player in Alaska Native politics. In May he appeared at a tribal summit in Anchorage to discuss the problems women face in rural Alaska.

"He pointed out that Anchorage is the area with the largest percentage of Native people and the majority of them are young women with children. He likened them to refugees,'' Lori Townsend, a reporter for the Alaska Public Radio Network, wrote at that time.

"They’re escaping conditions in the villages,” Napoleon said. “The poverty, the violence, so this is a very significant number.'"

Often the people who commit those violent acts in the villages have been drinking. The state's answer to that violence, in cooperation with local communities and the federal government, has been to try to stop it by bringing homebrew-ingredients yeast and sugar, along with alcohol, under the constraints of prohibition and cracking down harder on bootleggers.

The program has cost millions, according to the Justice Department study, and has been successful at throwing hundreds of people into jail for trafficking or dealing in alcohol. It's not working.

"Making harsher laws isn't the answer," Hoelscher said.

Wood agrees. Prohibition is failing in Alaska for the same reason it failed in America in the 1930s. The harder booze is to get, the more it costs. The more it costs, the greater the profit potential for anyone who wants to gamble in bootlegging. And there are always people who want to drink.

There are some indications in rural Alaska that, at most, harsher crackdowns serve only to shift business from smugglers to makers of homebrew.

What it would take to totally eliminate alcohol in rural Alaska is hard to say, but Wood notes the historical precedents would indicate society can't make people stop drinking. It can only try to alter economic and social conditions so as to make people want to stop drinking, or at least stop binge drinking.

Rural Alaskans already make some nasty tasting homebrew using sugar and yeast, and if those materials are restricted, they can always turn to what is called "prison wine" or "pruno," usually fermented from the yeast of bread soaked in any sugary solution.

"Prisoners aren’t allowed to have (alcohol), of course, but that doesn’t stop them," Peter Lipson reported for Forbes in February. "Human beings have been making alcohol for millennia, and inmates long ago came up with ways to make 'pruno.' Like most homemade fermented beverages, all you need to make pruno is sugar, water, and some sort of fermenter.

Prisoners aren’t sitting around at the (University of California-Davis) comparing wine yeasts: the yeasts that create pruno probably come from starters that circulate through prisons, which in turn come from yeast naturally occurring on some foods."

Prison inmates, Lipson noted, are "infinitely resourceful and intelligent." So, too, rural Alaskans. And the evidence would indicate they’ll find a way to drink if that’s what they desire. Napoleon's hometown has been dry for decades, but the alcohol-fueled violence hasn't stopped.

In April, 33-year-old Hooper Bay resident David Hoelscher, a relative of James, was arrested on charges he beat to death 27-year-old girlfriend Pauline Mann. The couple's two children apparently witnessed the death. "David Hoelscher told authorities he and Mann were drinking homebrew late Sunday and he got mad at her 'because she cheated on him while she was in Anchorage,' (an) affidavit says. He said he grabbed Mann by the hair and threw her around the house, punching her numerous times on her face and body," the Associated Press reported at the time.

David then went to sleep on the sofa. When he woke up the next morning and Mann was not breathing, he went to James and said he thought he might have killed Mann while drunk, according to affidavits filed in connection with the case. The case is now moving toward trial. David Hoelscher is being represented by state public defenders, who refused to speak to Alaska Dispatch for this series.

They are, however, expected to argue that David lacked the premeditation necessary for a first-degree murder charge because he was intoxicated. The so-called "mens rea defense" against the most serious of criminal charges is used with some regularity in Alaska.

Whether David truly was so intoxicated he didn't know what he was doing remains to be shown in court, if in fact prosecutors can show he killed Mann. But one thing about David does appear clear. He fits the problem-drinking profile described by Ehlers. 

He started drinking early and developed a serious drinking problem. State court records show his first contact with the adult court system came with a charge of drinking illegally when he was still only 17. A string of arrests on petty charges, including more cases of minor consuming, followed. There were assault charges dropped to disorderly conduct in 2006, harassment charges in 2009 and reckless endangerment charges in 2011, until he allegedly lost all control and beat Mann to death this year.

"At the very core of almost every bad thing that happens out here is alcohol," said his relative James.

That relationship encourages people to grab at easy solutions -- "throw the bums in jail" -- or equally simple answers -- "it's just those drunk Natives."

"I think that people do tend to want to think that Native Americans have a higher rate of alcohol dependence," Ehlers said.

The "drunk Indian" stereotype appeals both to non-Natives and Natives, said Wood, who has studied crime and alcohol abuse throughout the north. He spent more than a decade working in Alaska. He thinks the stereotype is convenient for everyone.

"In Anchorage," Wood said, "it's those damn Natives and their alcohol. And in the villages, it's an excuse" for misbehaviors.

While Wood worked at the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, he tried repeatedly to get Alaska State Troopers to stop flagging public crime reports from the rural areas of the state with the tag "alcohol is believed to be a factor." Wood believed that by doing so, troopers were helping to fuel the belief that alcohol -- not people -- are responsible for crime.

Troopers never changed their policy. They continue to finger alcohol in reports from rural Alaska. 

Earlier this month, they reported from Chuathbaluk, a remote community of about 100 nearly 320 miles west of Anchorage, that 35-year-old Richard Wolf Jr. had been charged with domestic violence and "was transported without further incident to Bethel where he was remanded to the Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Complex. Alcohol was a significant factor in this incident."

Alcohol is cited as a significant factor in so many incidents in rural Alaska that it only seems reasonable for a citizen of the state that alcohol is the only real problem there.

As a simple strategy for reducing domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault and suicide, Wood admitted, imposition of prohibition in the isolated communities of rural Alaska sounds good. But it just doesn't work.

Part of the reason, Wood said, is obvious. People somehow still get their hands on black-market booze or make homebrew. Focusing on the booze, however, masks the reasons they want to get drunk.

Rural Alaskans are caught between cultures. Jobs are scarce. Many live in villages that have no real economic reason to exist anymore. They were set up around schools in the days not all that long ago when rural Alaska Native peoples still lived a nomadic lifestyle, or they developed around gold mining operations or firewood stops for wood-powered stern wheelers which long ago disappeared from the rivers of Alaska.

There is a lot of idleness in some villages. Ehlers said idleness itself cannot be ignored as an issue that creates problems in all societies. 

The problems that arise in remote Alaska villages are not the fault of the people who live there. The people are, as James Hoelscher observed, "good people." Most villagers are as friendly and helpful, often more so, than other Alaskans.

But village life can be stressful, highly stressful. There sometimes seems like there isn't much to do but sit around and watch television. Television paints a picture of how much better off people are in the rest of the country.

It's not that hard to develop a hopeless sense of being trapped. That, in turn, can fuel all sorts of personal angers. There was a day, James Hoelscher said, when there was little time for any of this. People were too busy getting ready for winter or the hunting season or the fishing season. They had to pay attention to what they needed to get done because if they didn't, they would die.

It was a hard, hard life. Now it is easier, and in some ways so much harder.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com