Editor’s note: Today’s editorials originally appeared in The Columbian. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
In the 1980s, lawmakers in both Washington and Oregon enacted changes that might have appeared small at the time but have had huge impacts on both states. By making room for brewpubs and the craft beer industry, legislators transformed the region’s bars and restaurants — as even a short drive around Clark County reveals.
Now it is time for Congress to provide the same kind of economic opportunity for Native American tribes and to repeal an antiquated 19th-century law that prohibits distilleries on tribal land. A bill introduced by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has passed the House of Representatives by a voice vote, and a companion Senate bill introduced by Maria Cantwell and co-sponsored by Patty Murray, both Democrats from Washington, should draw strong support.
“This issue is a matter of fairness; Washington, D.C., shouldn’t be in the business of telling Indian Country it cannot engage in a business that’s allowed everywhere else,” Herrera Beutler said on the floor of the House of Representatives.
While Congress should, indeed, embrace such fairness, the history of the ban warrants examination. It represents one small example of how institutional bigotry has impacted this nation.
The prohibition stems from an 1834 law signed by President Andrew Jackson that regulates trade on Native American lands. The law threatened asset forfeiture for anybody who possessed, sold or made alcoholic drinks on tribal grounds. According to an opinion piece published by The New York Times in June: “In drafting the law, Congress appears to have been partly motivated by concerns over non-Indian settlers dodging federal alcohol taxes by setting up distilleries on tribal grounds. ... It was a darker motivation that led Congress to ban booze entirely.”
That darkness was the stereotype of the “drunken Indian,” a trope that led to paternalistic action on the part of white “protectors.” The 1834 law’s stated secondary purpose was “to preserve peace on the frontiers,” as if allowing alcohol on tribal lands would make the natives difficult to control. In the 1950s, Congress amended the law to permit the sale of alcohol on reservations, but it preserved the ban on distilling.
This has been noticeable in recent decades, with the growth of small breweries and distilleries. Buoyed by congressional action in 1979 and changes to state laws during the 1980s, the craft beer industry has provided economic opportunity. In 1978, for example, the number of U.S. breweries bottomed out at 89; by 2015, that number had climbed to more than 4,000 for the first time since the 1870s.
Critics often decry the notion of “white privilege” as political correctness run amok, but the prohibition of tribal distilleries represents one example of economic opportunity being institutionally denied to a specific minority. It represents outdated thinking that has kept Native Americans from taking part in a quickly growing sector.
The new push to overturn the ban was triggered when the Chehalis tribe was stifled in efforts to build a craft distillery. And if the bill passes the Senate and is signed by President Trump, it also could lead to a distillery at the Cowlitz tribe’s ilani site. “There’s a lot of that going on in the market right now,” Cowlitz Chairman Bill Iyall told The (Longview) Daily News. “It only seems fair that tribes would have the same opportunity.”
Overturning an 1834 law would be a step toward making the United States the land of opportunity for all of its citizens.