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Selling alcohol on the reservation

Sep 3, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

It was banned for a reason, and there ought to an equally good one to reinstate it

For the first time in decades, there is real discussion about lifting the longtime ban on alcohol sales on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The re-examination of the issue comes about because some circumstances on the reservation have changed, but other factors loom just as large as they ever did.

Decades ago, it was the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes themselves that instituted the ban on alcohol, not some outside force. The reservation has been "dry" for a more than a generation.

What has changed? Business, for one thing.

Legalized gambling did not exist on the reservation more than 40 years ago when the ban on alcohol first was raised. Now, however, casino gaming has been a reality on the reservation for a decade. And in most places in this country, casinos serve alcohol. Not the ones on the Wind River Indian Reservation. At least not yet.

But the Shoshones are looking to expand their signature casino near Lander, and that ambitious expansion plan includes a liquor license.

If the Shoshone Rose Casino were to obtain permission to sell and serve alcohol, it is likely that the Wind River Casino near Riverton, owned by the Arapahos, would want to follow suit.

Coincidentally, a non-Indian owned business in the rural community of Burris on the edge of the reservation applied for permission to sell beer this summer, but that request was denied by the tribes.

In response to this new activity, Fremont County government is working with the tribes to develop a memorandum of understanding on how liquor license applications will be treated. As things stand now, the tribes first must grant permission for a liquor license on the reservation, followed by permission from the Fremont County Commission. Because it has been so long since there was a reservation liquor license, the county and the tribes need a roadmap on handling new applications.

Incidentally, details of the memorandum of understanding as proposed do not involve the City of Riverton, just as current liquor license applications in Riverton do not involve the tribes. This would seem to be a tacit acknowledgment by the tribes that Riverton is not legally part of the reservation, an issue that the tribes have been pressing in court for many years, but from the opposite direction.

That portion of the liquor license issue is the topic for another day. Meanwhile, both the tribes and the county are correct to tread very slowly and very carefully around this issue. Alcohol is no less a problem in Fremont County in 2013 than in 1970. As local governments at the municipal, tribal and county levels struggle mightily to combat alcohol abuse in our county, the prospect of reopening the reservation to alcohol sales is worrisome.

Fortunately, everyone involved in these discussions realizes that. By no means is there a rush to open up a string of bars and drive-up liquor windows on the reservation. There are only two applications under consideration this year, and one of them already has been denied. No one could accuse the tribes or the county of engaging in a reckless process.

But money talks. If the casino expansion does go forward, then the pressure for a liquor establishment on the reservation is bound to increase. The changed economics probably will add weight to one side of the scale.

The sale of alcohol on the reservation was banned for a reason. There ought to be an equally good reason to reinstate it. Perhaps it will be found. But as the longtime balance is tested, it will be impossible for the controlling authorities to be too careful.