YAKIMA -- Despite 19th century laws prohibiting the introduction of intoxicants into "Indian country," the Yakama Nation cannot ban the sale of alcohol on its entire reservation, a U.S. attorney said.
But the U.S. Justice Department is prepared to enforce existing federal liquor laws where appropriate on the 1.3-million-acre reservation in south central Washington, as requested by the Yakama Nation, said Jim Shively, acting U.S. attorney in Spokane.
Establishments selling alcohol in the cities of Toppenish and Wapato are probably exempt from such enforcement because they are non-Indian communities on private land within the reservation, he said.
"Our position has nothing to do with the Yakama Nation's alcohol ban," he said Friday. "We are not enforcing any alcohol ban that they have or haven't adopted. It's simply a matter of enforcing federal statutes that predate any ban the Yakamas have attempted to do."
The tribe's prohibition on alcohol sales took effect in September, but no arrests have been made.
Most of the 47 establishments licensed by the state to sell alcoholic beverages on the reservation continued to do so despite the ban, although two grocery stores voluntarily removed beer and wine from their shelves and the state closed its two liquor store franchises.
Three days after the ban took effect, Attorney General Christine Gregoire sued three leaders of the Yakama Nation, contending the tribe had no right to impose the ban on nontribal members or on privately owned land within the reservation boundaries. The reservation is a crazy quilt of tribal and non tribal land.
In December, a judge dismissed the state's lawsuit, saying the challenge was premature because the ban had not been enforced.
"We are pleased the U.S. attorney has outlined his interpretation of how federal law apples to the Yakama reservation," said David Walsh, a deputy state attorney general.
"His opinion lifts a cloud of uncertainty over nontribal businesses in a concentrated area of the reservation."
The Yakama Nation will ask the Justice Department to enforce the liquor laws, said Jack Fiander, a lawyer and a tribal councilman.
The tribe would like to see a tavern in Brownstown and one in Harrah closed, he said. It
also wants alcohol sales stopped at three convenience stores in Harrah, another store near Wapato, another in a rural area outside of Toppenish, and at a club just off U.S. 97.
"Nobody wants to see anybody prosecuted," Fiander said.
The tribe would like to see the businesses given 60 to 90 days to liquidate their stock and get their affairs in order.
"That's only fair. They've been operating for years in their mistaken belief they were being lawful," Fiander said.
Alcohol has long been banned from the parts of the Yakama reservation open to tribal members only, and at its casino and convenience store.
About 20,000 non-Indians and 5,000 members of the tribe live on the reservation, which includes several parcels of privately owned land.
Shively said that under his interpretation of the statutes, establishments on private land in Toppenish, population 8,000, and Wapato, population 4,000, would be exempt from federal liquor law enforcement because they are non-Indian communities.