Rural Alaska

Tribal leaders gather in Bethel to work on alcohol problems and other regional issues

BETHEL — Parents too drunk to provide care. Suicides and deaths from exposure. Violence in homes.

Problems that long have marred rural Alaska to a degree unseen almost anywhere else are getting new attention from village residents who say some of the answers must come from villages themselves.

Some put blame for recent troubles on Bethel's 10-month-old liquor store. At a tribal gathering in Bethel on Wednesday they talked about banding together to shut it down. Yet they also heard statistics that suggest the store, an outlet for the first legal sales in about four decades, hasn't made things worse so far.

Tribal leaders and members from around the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta who gathered at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center heard from the state deputy attorney general about the promise of new, state-sanctioned tribal courts. A tribal police chief urged watch lists of those known to cause trouble while drinking. Two women from Emmonak told how that Yukon River village has run its own women's shelter for decades.

And the tribal members are examining what if anything they can do about the Alaska Commercial Co. liquor store, at the AC Quickstop.

"We need to come up with action items," said Mike Williams, an Akiak tribal council member and activist who is leading the two-day conference.

[One liquor store is more than enough, says Bethel City Council]

All day, the tribal leaders and members took the microphone to rail against the liquor store. Many spoke in Yup'ik about deaths and loss, broken families and wasted lives.

"Overwhelming is close the liquor store until such time as the region is prepared for it," Williams said as the first day wrapped up.

The meeting room had many empty chairs. Some elders asked where the young people were.

A panel early in the day was supposed to provide hard numbers on the store's impact on surrounding villages in terms of health and public safety. But it was missing two key members, the Bethel-based trooper commander, who had a health issue, and the Bethel district attorney.

Two who did come said their statistics don't show that the store, which opened in May 2016, has added cases or clients.

Dianna St. Vincent, a Bethel supervisor with the state Office of Children's Services, said she examined reports of child abuse and neglect for the two years before the store opened as well as for the year that it opened.

"Our numbers have not changed," St. Vincent told the gathering.

For each year she examined, the state child protection agency received about 1,100 to 1,200 reports of abuse or neglect from communities throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, she said.

"I was shocked," she said later. "I just think it is not getting reported a lot of the time."

She urged people at the tribal conference to call OCS if they suspect a child is being mistreated by parents or a guardian.

Danielle Shawgo, director of outpatient behavioral health services for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., said results are similar for the Alaska Native-run health agency.

The census at YKHC's sobering center, where officers bring individuals who are dangerously drunk, didn't differ much in 2016 from prior years, she said. And visits to the emergency room with alcohol as a factor have been relatively stable, even dropping, she said. The number of people wanting help as outpatients hasn't changed much either, she said.

But others said they are seeing much more trouble since the Bethel store opened.

"It is affordable now for younger people," said Liz Ivan, who works in suicide and substance abuse prevention for Akiak Native Community — the tribal government.

"We are quietly suffering up here," said Ivan Ivan, her uncle, a former state representative and Akiak tribal chief.

Another from Akiak, Kimberly Smith, said since the store opened she can't come to Bethel without someone asking if she wants a shot of alcohol.

She and her husband are basketball coaches. Children in the village now walk around like there is no hope, she said. Everyone can hear everything in a small village, and lately kids are hearing gunshots, drunken shouts and arguments, she said. Some in her own family have gone on binges for days or even months, she said.

Tribes can take action, deputy attorney general Rob Henderson told the gathering.

"I want to potentially offer all the villages another tool that you can use in your toolbox," Henderson said.

The model is the Interior village of Anvik, he said. Under a new approach being tried there, the state has agreed to divert misdemeanor cases including theft, vandalism, disorderly conduct, domestic violence, and alcohol importation from the state-run criminal system to tribal court, where they will be handled as civil matters.

That same strategy could work in other villages at a time when the state is cutting back, he said.

"The local community is going to be empowered and responsible for coming up with culturally based solutions … for these low-level offenses," Henderson said.

The state doesn't have money to fund tribal courts, he said. Tribes will need to figure out how to do so, possibly through federal grants, he said.

The transfer of authority to a tribe would be case by case. Offenders must agree to tribal court, and the tribal court must agree to accept that specific offender, he said. Penalties are limited to a $1,500 fine, forfeiture of property, and restitution to the victim. Offenders can't be jailed or banished under the state-approved approach, he said.

Some tribes in Southwest Alaska already have tribal courts, but they can only enforce tribal law, and can't handle cases investigated by state troopers.

Sammy Anvil, born and raised in Bethel, said long ago he faced a tribal court for trying to bring alcohol into the village of Nunapitchuk. He said his relatives ran the court, and he felt he got off fairly easy.

"They just told me to spill all the booze to the river," Anvil said.

In small villages, tribal judges often must recuse themselves because they are too closely related to those involved, Williams said.

Harold Napoleon, whose tribe is Paimut, a village no longer inhabited, said villages have been asking to run tribal courts for 40 years. This is a big step, he said.

"We get to protect our women. We get to protect our children," Napoleon said.

Could nearby villages join together under one tribal court? he asked.

That seems reasonable, Henderson said.

Another idea came from Steven Andrew, tribal police chief in the tundra village of Atmautluak.

Tribal police and tribal courts have come up with a watch list of people who abuse alcohol. If someone on the list buys gas, the store is supposed to let police know. If the person buys a plane ticket, the air carrier's local agent should give the same warning. That way police can be on the lookout for someone arriving with booze, he said.

In Emmonak, women being beaten at home used to hide under boats, in smokehouses or in the woods, said Lenora "Lynn" Hootch, who helped open the women's shelter there in 1983.

Now they have a safe place that isn't anything like most domestic violence shelters. All of the staff are Yup'ik and speak the language there. Native foods are served. Women elders teach traditional ways and how to live healthy lives, she said.

As to next steps, the tribal group agreed to return Thursday to work on specifics.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.