BOOZE

During the Thirties the rez folks learned how to make drinking alcohol by distilling fermented grain. It was a skill that took many through the Depression, particularly the part about selling it to tourists at the Big Hotels in the GNP, though they also smuggled Canadian booze since it was easy to cross the border. Even Wallace Stegner’s dad knew how to do that. He just didn’t know not to challenge the bigtime mafia in Salt Lake City.

Bob knew who the best bootleggers were then and where they lived, but by the time I came, they were mostly inactive. In Browning was a set of drinking holes distributed by class. Now they are pretty much confined to the three tourist towns: East Glacier, Babb, and St. Marys. The temperance movement is long gone, but now there is a new force for healthy living and even professionals have been told by their docs to stop drinking.

Being progressive about eliminating drunkenness was a praiseworthy conviction and one that I follow, since there are alcoholics on both sides of my family. I have to consciously resist the single malt Scotch in crystal tumblers that is a trope for movie writers. It has been much more recent to understand how to “dry out.” It is not so much a character flaw and death sentence as it was. But white alcoholics on the rez will still say “at least I’m not an Indian,” like the cultural Jewish thanks for not being a woman.

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The Napi Bar was low and rough. The gossip was that two white men went in there, got smart aleck and were found the next morning in the weeds behind the building. One was dead; the other was changed forever. The building is gone now.

The most “respectable” was the Businessman’s Club run by Red Harper. You knocked, someone looked to see who you were, and if you seemed respectable, they buzzed you in. Harper’s daughter was the first wife of Gary Schildt, the artist. Behind the bar was Bob Scriver’s depiction of a pack string — himself and his son. The granddaughter was recently trying to sell it, but I don’t know what happened. Bob didn’t drink while I was with him, but his brother always did. He had low-level PTSD from WWII.

The scariest of the bars was Minyard’s. He often leaned in the open doorway and one could see the card players — always the same ones — behind him at a table. He was Mexican and connected.

At some point before I came he had commissioned Bob to make him a “strap-on” and provided a French postcard to show how to do it. Either Bob made two or never gave him requested accessory because one was in the darkroom until people started discovering it, including females who recognized the model, who had been “at hand.”

No one admitted they knew about Devil’s Corner where locally distilled alcohol could be bought but consumed elsewhere. Now Ick’s is quite public, but sells bottled commercial liquor.

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Pre-contact Blackfeet had no alcohol and limited mushrooms. I was in Saskatoon ’86 -’88 when amphetamines arrived, creating a deadly party culture. The police were unable to address it because all witnesses were either damaged or deranged. Now this plague is on the local rez. Sources are said to have followed the many immigrants from Mexico but are also cooked locally. Some find out about it through Montana universities when they try to keep up confidence and meet deadlines, then bring drugs home.

No locals I know ever talk about LSD or atahuaska. Those seem to be choices of people with money, the freedom to travel, and consumers of media.

Hugh Dempsey, a Calgary historian married to a Siksika, had the courage to write “Firewater”, a history of the alcohol economy of the borderlands. People in Browning were startled to recognize names of their ancestors. They are also the names of many tribal college professors, because they had enough resourcefulness to hustle enough money to stay alive. (Education can also be a good hustle.)

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So far no one has addressed the Asian genetic base of the Plains Indians and its relationship to the Chinese/Japanese/Korean use of alcohol. Vulnerability may go back to the Denisovan hominins whose traces are still found down the east coast of Eurasia, while 2–3% of the west coast (Western Europe) has traces of neanderthal DNA. Constant low-level drunkenness seems to have been characteristic of many of the hard labor setting, like early sailing ships. The widespread alcohol culture of mid-Eurasia seems related to the hardship and restrictions of the culture.

In old times alcohol could be a form of pay and pacification for low class people. Now it has been seized by the marketing values of the modern world and is considered a mark of class and celebration. Modern discouragements in the form of trouble are drunk driving — now heavily punished — and use of social media which can have bad consequences. These don’t affect the average street drunk.

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Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.