Alaska village mulls reversing alcohol ban

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A gravesite outside the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Nikolai. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch)
A gravesite outside the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Nikolai. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch)
One Alaska village awaiting the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the festive mood it always brings is also grappling with a much heavier issue: Potentially overturning a ban on booze instituted 17 years ago after a villager brutally murdered an elder in a drunken rage.

The mushers will roll into Nikolai in a matter of hours, some sleeping on the floor of the school and others gobbling up the fry bread and other chow prepared by some of the 100 or so residents.

The mushers will long be gone by early next month, when the city council proposes holding a vote to let villagers consider going “damp.” If it passes, residents may bring in limited amounts of alcohol but not sell it.

Like Nikolai along the frozen Kuskokwim River, some 75 Alaska communities have voted to outlaw alcohol, with supporters saying it helps reduce violent crime, accidental deaths, sexual assaults, suicides and other ills.

But in Nikolai, a new generation with new views has grown up since the slaying, said Teresa Lowrey, a city council member, and those residents should have the right to decide whether it’s OK to have a drink.

Ballot question

After getting requests from the public, Nikolai’s city council unanimously agreed to put the item on the ballot, said Lowrey. But no date has been set yet.

Lowrey said she sees both sides of the issue. On the one hand, the village is essentially damp already because people bring it in illegally.

“So what ends up happening is we’re turning our young adults into criminals for having a drink and doing something everyone else in the rest of America does. What kind of message does that send to our children? They look at parents and say, ‘Oh wow, they’re doing something illegal so maybe these laws don’t matter to me anyway.’”

It’s a controversial topic, said Lowrey.

She said First Chief Nick Alexia — who could not be reached for this article because he was out gathering wood — strongly opposes allowing a vote. A recent public meeting was largely attended by elders, some of whom don’t want the village to go damp, she said.

“None of the young adults who want the law to change showed up because of the strength elders have over the younger people,” she said. “I had fingers pointed at me because I wanted to make clear this isn’t up for the tribe to control.”

Lowrey wouldn’t say how she’ll vote, but said residents should have the right to decide. A second public meeting on the topic will be held March 17, she said.

The costs

Vice mayor Ed Sellards said the city council has twice approved a resolution calling for a vote.

Popping open a beer after a hard day of work can get you up to a $2,000 fine and a year in jail. Do it again, and the penalties get harsher.

“If you think of it, not everyone that drinks causes trouble. But by bringing beer into town, you’re subjecting yourself to a $2,000 fine. That’s a bunch of baloney sauce,” said Sellards.

Some young people want the village to stay dry. Jeremiah Ticknor, 25, said if the laws are loosened more people will make booze runs to McGrath some 45 miles away, where liquor is legally sold. That will lead to more drinking, and possibly violence.

“Personally I want it to be dry. Most Alaska Natives can’t handle their liquor,” said Ticknor, who said he’s Native.

Haunted by troubling case

It was an Alaska Native with a history of violence, Bernie Alexia, who was convicted of murder in the beating, strangling and sexual assault of the elderly Alaxendria Dennis, 84, in 1997. Alexia committed the murder as the village celebrated Russian Orthodox Christmas.

Ann Alexia, the wife of the first chief, said people will drink more when it’s damp, leading to more fights and more assaults.

“We have a little control on it when its dry because people are afraid of getting caught,” she said, adding that heavy drinking in the village already seems to be on the rise as the debate over legalizing booze heats up.

Ann said Bernie Alexia is her brother-in-law. She was a health aide in 1997 and witnessed the scene of that murder.

Ann, now 66, has also responded to other devastating events that involved alcohol over the years, both before the ban and after, including when her oldest son shot himself in 1994 at the age of 23, and in a more recent shooting in the village.

“I want it to be dry forever,” she said. “I really don’t like to see my people drinking.”

Related Links:

Canada: Booze restrictions to stay in three Nunavut hamlets, CBC News

Finland: Finland imposes further restrictions on alcohol advertising, Yle News

United States:  Alaska group hopes to end fetal alcohol syndrome, Alaska Dispatch

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