The Chehalis Tribe jointly owns and operates the Great Wolf Lodge Resort on its homelands in Grand Mound, Washington. Photo: Jeff Sandquist

New bill repeals old prohibition on distilleries in Indian Country

A vestige of a paternalistic era in federal law and policy might finally be coming down, leading the way to more economic development in Indian Country.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill last week that repeals a 19th-century ban on alcohol distilleries on tribal lands. Supporters say there is no reason why tribes should be treated any differently than other governments when it comes to manufacturing liquor.

“It’s time we remove this outdated rule and allow tribes to pursue the same economic opportunity on their land allowed on non-tribal land," Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Washington), the sponsor of H.R.5317, the Repeal of Prohibition on Certain Alcohol Manufacturing on Indian Lands Act, said in a press release.

The ban at issue was enacted by Congress on June 30, 1834. In order to "regulate trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes," lawmakers at the time thought it was best to prohibit anyone from giving "spirituous liquor or wine" to an Indian person and to prohibit the manufacture of "ardent spirits" in Indian Country.

The law even authorized the use of "the military force of the United States" to destroy any alcohol distilleries on tribal lands.

Fast forward 184 years and the situation looks a lot different. Millions of people flock to tribal homelands every year for concerts, conventions and casino entertainment, and many of them expect the same kinds of amenities seen elsewhere.

The CraftHouse at the Lucky Eagle Casino in Rochester, Washington, debuted in 2016 as part of an expansion designed by Rice Fergus Miller. Photo: Rice Fergus Miller VizLab

The Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation are among those eager to welcome those visitors. But the 1834 ban represents a hurdle for a proposed brewery, distillery and restaurant on the reservation in southwest Washington.

“The legislation would repeal a never used, antiquated law that is an obstacle to an economic development project on the Chehalis Reservation that would benefit the tribe and surrounding communities, create jobs, and provide training opportunities for tribal members,” Chairman Harry Pickernell said. “The repeal will ensure that all aspects of the economic development project can commence and be completed as envisioned by the tribe.”

The tribe is experienced in the hospitality industry, with the Great Wolf Lodge Resort, a large indoor water park and hotel, among the offerings on its homelands. Two years ago, the tribe began selling craft distilled spirits, as well as craft brews, at CraftHouse, a restaurant at the Lucky Eagle Casino.

Those products are sourced from companies outside of Indian Country. H.R.5317, if it becomes law, would enable the tribe to develop its own and tap into growing interest in craft distilling and craft brewing.

According to the American Craft Spirits Association, the craft spirits market reached $3 billion in sales in 2016, representing a growth of 25 percent. Craft brewer sales are even stronger -- $23.5 billion in 2016, according to the Brewers Association.

The distillery bill, introduced on March 15, already enjoys support in Indian Country, according to a co-sponsor. Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Washington) said the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, of which Chehalis is a member, and the National Congress of American Indians are calling for its passage.

“This is about jobs and giving more people a chance to earn a living,” Kilmer said of H.R.5317, which counts two Republicans and two Democrats as co-sponsors.

The bill isn't the only one in Congress that aims to repeal outdated laws in Indian Country. S.343, the Repealing Existing Substandard Provisions Encouraging Conciliation with Tribes Act, also known as the RESPECT Act, eliminates nearly a dozen "hateful" and "paternalistic" statutes, most of which date back to the 1800s.

The 1834 distillery ban, which is encoded at Section 2141 of the Revised Statutes, is not included in S.343. But another provision would repeal Section 2087, which allows the federal government to withhold funds to Indian people who are "under the influence of any description of intoxicating liquor."

“It is long past time to remove these offensive laws from our books," said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota), the sponsor of the RESPECT Act. The bill cleared the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs nearly a year ago and awaits action on the Senate floor.

H.R.5317 has been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources.

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