Alaska News

PEOPLE IN PERIL: The ever-vigilant Venetie

Originally published Jan. 10, 1988. Part of a series.

VENETIE — Thirty-five miles above the Arctic Circle, in a cabin decorated with the skins of lynx, marten, wolf and wolverine, four men sat on wooden stools and watched “All My Children” on the television. The room smelled of burning wood, brewing coffee and many cigarettes. It was another cold morning in Venetie and no one had much to say.

Neil Sam heard it first: The far-off but unmistakable buzz of a small plane. He glanced at the others. Venetie’s daily ritual was about to begin.

The twin-engine plane banked low over the Chandalar River west of the village as the men quickly slipped on their gloves and hopped on snowmachines for the 30second ride to the runway. In cabins all over Venetie, people were doing the same. By the time the plane’s tires touched the snowpacked strip, two dozen men, women and children were standing along a snowbank, waiting.

They had come to see what was in the plane on this morning a sack of mail, a giant carton of Pampers, boxes of canned and frozen goods for the village's two small stores. As the pilot handed the items through the door, they were passed from person to person. Labels were read, return addresses scrutinized, boxes felt for unusual rattling.

What was happening here what happens in Venetie every time a plane lands is one of the more extreme examples of how some communities have dealt with alcoholism and the destruction it brings to village Alaska. Venetie is a village gone dry as dry as any in the state and the people at the airport were there to make sure it stayed that way.

MAKING A CHANGE

Twenty years ago, life here was starting to go haywire.

Whenever there was money, there was liquor, and when there was liquor there were binges, often for days at a time. People got hurt. No one was killed, but it wasn't for lack of trying. People were shot, stabbed and beaten. Kids were neglected and work ignored. For the first time ever, people began putting locks on their cabin doors.

"Everybody was drinking," recalled 52yearold Maggie Roberts. "Not every day, not all the time. . . . But when it was around, they'd all drink chiefs, council, everybody. Kids couldn't go home. Old people would stay in their house."

In 1972, some of them said enough. They adopted a tough, simple code that forbids all liquor and spells out penalties, including banishment from the village and blacklisting from publicworks jobs, for anyone who violates it.

With no police in the village, the ordinance is enforced by residents themselves. They can search homes, packages and one another if they suspect someone has booze. To an outsider, it's a harsh system that seems, at times, to fly in the face of American notions of privacy and due process, to which people in Venetie reply: it works.

The village, they say, is a good place to live.

The last time someone was shot in Venetie was in the early 1970s. The last knifing occurred sometime before that. There hasn't been an alcoholrelated accident in years. Except for occasional teenage vandalism, there is no crime. And no one can remember a suicide.

Venetie residents have not given up drinking, and make no claims that they have. They just don't drink here. When they visit relatives in Fairbanks, they often end up on Second Avenue, a collection of liquor stores and bars that serves as a gathering place for Natives from all over the Interior.

Marijuana is widely accepted and enjoyed in Venetie, but booze is not, even by those who drink it to excess when they're away. People here simply do not get drunk at home.

KUTCHIN STILL SPOKEN

Like other Alaska villages, Venetie (pronounced VEENatye) is a tangle of new and old ways.

An Athabascan Indian settlement of 208 people, Venetie has three dozen log cabins, a post office, Laundromat, three trucks, eight or nine streets, an Episcopal church, a roomy new school and some of the most extreme weather on earth. In winter, temperatures sink below minus 50 degrees, and rise into the 80s in summer. Few Indian settlements on this continent are farther north.

The people here are members of the Kutchin tribe. For centuries they crisscrossed the upper Yukon Flats and southern Brooks Range, moving wherever there was food. They followed the Porcupine caribou herd, hunted moose and other game, and caught pike, grayling and whitefish.

These days, they live on a mix of seasonal jobs (fighting forest fires or working construction) and food stamps and other government relief. Cash income is supplemented by subsistence hunting and fishing. With fur prices rising, more and more people are trapping. The village has about a dozen fulltime jobs, half of them filled by outsiders working for the school district.

Most adults and some of the kids still speak Kutchin in conversation. When people talk about the influence of TV in the five years since the village got its satellite dish, it's usually to the effect that TV has helped people speak English better rather than speak Kutchin less.

Most homes have snowmachines, allterrain vehicles and electric freezers. There are enough VCRs that a woman recently began renting video movies for $5 a day.

Fifty years ago, the village existed only as a seasonal camp for hunting and fishing. "Venetie" is Kutchin for "Plenty Game Trail." The camp became a yearround settlement in the mid1930s when the federal government opened a school and hired a charismatic, collegeeducated Athabascan named John Fredson as teacher. Venetie grew quickly.

Fredson and others in Venetie and neighboring Arctic Village quickly began pushing to create a federally recognized reserve to give local Natives control over the land and protect fish and game from outside hunters. The Venetie Indian Reserve was one of the first attempts at settling Native land claims in Alaska. By the time it was approved in 1942, the reserve encompassed 1.8 million acres an area the size of Delaware.

Since then, the Kutchins of Venetie and Arctic Village have worked hard to keep control of their land. The villages transferred the land granted in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act from the village corporations to the tribe, which is less susceptible to outside takeover. Neither village has ever incorporated, so the tribal government has remained in control.

From the time the village was settled, liquor was illegal first through a federal prohibition of all Native drinking in Alaska and later through a ban imposed by reserve leaders. Both were ignored. A maltbased homebrew was regularly prepared and consumed, and manufactured spirits were brought into the village from time to time. But the most serious problems with alcohol began in the 1960s, when a new airstrip was built and flights from Fairbanks and Fort Yukon became more common.

Air service brought food, mail and building materials, and made it easier for people to get to the hospital in Fairbanks. The planes delivered fuel for the electric generator and enabled men to take jobs outside the village. They also made it possible to get whiskey quickly.

"The booze started coming out of Fort Yukon a lot stronger, there was more available," said Ernest Erick, the lanky, 32yearold tribal chief. "There was always someone bringing it in from outside."

Drunken violence became more common. Venetie began to wobble out of control.

"I remember we had to sit under the table because people were fighting," said Ricky Frank, now 26. "I was young then, you know. During the daytime, that was probably the funnest time we (kids) had because everybody was passed out. That's when we had the chance to play."

About 1971, a few residents realized that something had to be done. They talked with a lawyer and state troopers, and found that federal law enabled them to ban booze absolutely.

Because the reserve, not the government, owned the airstrip, they could control what was unloaded there. Although the law is complicated and parts of it are in dispute, people in Venetie say it also gives them the power to search one another's property provided that violators aren't arrested, only fined or made to leave.

A prohibition ordinance was written and approved by most adults in the village. Everything arriving by plane, including people, would be searched. People known to be heavy drinkers would be watched.

Violators were called before the village tribal council a fivemember, elected group that serves as city council and judge. People caught with booze were given three chances. The first two times, they were fined; after a third violation they were put on a plane to Fairbanks or Fort Yukon and told not to return for six months.

Keeping alcohol out of Venetie wasn't easy. Robert Frank, village chief at the time, said it took years to make Venetie dry. "My own brothers . . . I almost got the hell beat out of me for trying to take it away from them. It was hard to tell people, "You can't drink.' "

But the fact that drinking had only happened once in a while when there was money made it easier for people to stop, residents said. Slowly, fewer and fewer people were caught with booze, and more and more came to the airstrip to search.

In response, the bootleggers tried harder. Maggie Roberts chuckles at the memory of one sneaky pilot who landed at the far end of the runway late one evening, dropped off a case of whiskey and took off. He got away, but the whiskey was confiscated.

Another pilot with bootleg booze wasn't so lucky. The key to his plane was swiped by Venetie vigilantes. The next day, when another pilot for the same Fairbanks air taxi came looking for him, the second pilot was told that booze wasn't welcome and neither was any pilot who tried to deliver it. Both left in a hurry.

Letters went out to the airlines in the region, and pilots began making wide, lazy loops over Venetie before landing, giving people time to get to the runway to greet visitors and cargo.

SOME WERE BANISHED

The quality of life improved. "When the drinking stopped, people found they had money," said John Titus. "People could afford the things they needed: chain saws, snowgos."

Some residents didn't like the new ways and left for Fairbanks, Fort Yukon or elsewhere. Others left involuntarily.

No one knows exactly how many people have been banished from Venetie. Residents say it may be as many as a couple dozen. Some came back; some were never heard from again.

One man, who asked that his name not be used, was banished in 1980. He recalled being put on a plane for Fairbanks with no money in his pocket after ignoring two fines and then being caught with a bottle of whiskey. The council sent him off with a letter saying he was welcome to return in six months.

He lived with relatives, made a little money doing odd jobs, kept drinking, and wound up in jail for disorderly conduct. Six months to the day after leaving, he returned to Venetie. Upon his arrival, he was summoned to meet with members of the village council, who welcomed him home but told him if he violated the law again, he would be gone for good.

"I was ready to come back," he said. "I can do anything I want here. I can trap and hunt. I can't do anything in Fairbanks. . . . As long as I'm here, there isn't any (alcohol). I like it like this. I don't like going over (to Fairbanks), 'cause every time I do, I know what's gonna happen: I drink a lot of booze. I call myself an alcoholic.

"When everybody's sober, you get booze off your mind. People work together. You need to stop booze from coming in."

He didn't drink again for three years, he said, but today he drinks heavily when outside the village. A couple of winters ago, he wound up in the hospital after getting drunk with friends in Fort Yukon and then running his snowmachine into a tree while trying to make the fivehour trip back to Venetie.

But at home, whenever a plane lands, he's among the first to the airstrip.

The searches these days are less vigorous than they once were. The few violations that still occur involve mostly teenagers returning from Fairbanks or outsiders entering the village. The runway gatherings seem as much a social occasion to see who's on the plane, or what's coming into the stores as a vigilante act.

Different reasons are offered to explain why Venetie has succeeded in staying dry while other villages have not. Heading the list is a strong, enforceable law that people have agreed to follow. A privately owned airport means the power to search people and their luggage. And there are other factors: remoteness, the fact that alcoholism was perhaps never as deeprooted here as elsewhere, a defiant political outlook that includes a strong desire to preserve parts of the traditional culture and keep out negative influences.

SOME PROBLEMS PERSIST

But there are also signs that Venetie is still struggling with alcohol. People talk of kids being neglected while parents are off drinking in Fort Yukon or Fairbanks. The council is considering whether to allow the health aide to administer small quantities of liquor to residents suffering withdrawal after prolonged binges outside the village.

Robert Frank, the chief when Venetie went dry, now lives in Fairbanks with his wife. He has attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for several years, and he has been trying to persuade his relatives back in Venetie to form a chapter.

"I see these kids from Venetie down here in Fairbanks," he said, looking out his living room window to the courtyard of an apartment complex largely populated by Natives. "They've come up to me and asked me to borrow money so they can buy a bottle. That makes me sad."

Back in Venetie, Robert's cousin, Eddie Frank, stood in the kitchen of his cabin, his forehead creased into the wrinkles of a man who thinks a lot. He wonders about the future of his village sometimes, he said.

Eddie's grandparents helped settle the village. His grandfather was its first chief; his grandmother, who is 105 years old, still lives here. Eddie went to boarding school and college, and now, at 36, is part of the generation in charge.

Eight years ago, he came to Venetie from Kotzebue to visit his father. He didn't know the village was dry. On the way, he stopped in Fort Yukon and partied with friends. He was met at the airstrip by his aunt, who, smelling alcohol on his breath, frisked him and searched his bag.

Back in Kotzebue, he and his wife talked it over and decided to move to Venetie. He eventually became chief, and still sits on the council and school advisory board.

Venetie is still a good place to live, he said, but just keeping booze out won't solve all the problems. There aren't enough ways for people to earn a living. The village is $150,000 in debt.

While some of the Athabascan culture survives, much of it is slipping away fast. Too many kids don't know how to hunt, and they don't do well in school either.

Young people, especially the young men, are showing a disturbing tendency to get drunk and into trouble when they leave the village, Eddie said. Recently, a 17yearold was caught trying to sneak a bottle into the village.

"They're frustrated," he said. "I think many men today, they wonder what their purpose is. Sometimes, I get up in the morning and I feel that way. . . . There's days when being in Venetie is like that."

"Almost all the young guys who live here, they live here 'cause . . . Well, it's pretty tough out there. . . . They stay here and there's frustration, 'cause . . . they're getting older and they're still living with their parents. And it's pretty difficult for them to find a girlfriend. . . .

“And things are expected of them,” Eddie Frank said. “They’re told it over and over: They’re expected to be the leaders of the future, but there are problems here.”

David Hulen

David Hulen is editor of the ADN, He has been a reporter and editor at ADN for 35 years. As a reporter, he traveled extensively in Alaska. He was a writer on the Pulitzer Prize winning "People In Peril" series and was among the first reporters on scene of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He was co-editor of the Pulitzer-winning "Lawless" series.

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