Fred Guardipee knows all about the pain of losing loved ones. Last year, three of his sons were killed in a highway accident like the kind he and others on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation now try to prevent.
Guardipee, the Blackfeet Tribe's police chief, is a key backer of two temporary bans on reservation alcohol sales that were enacted by tribal leaders this summer. If Guardipee had it his way, the prohibitions would be permanent.
"I know what this stuff can do to families," he says in his Browning office. "There are a lot of people driving out here who are intoxicated. About 80 percent of the accidents here are alcohol- or drug-related. We know that."
Until recently, the problem of reservation drinking and driving has largely perplexed tribal leaders. But a series of record years for accidents has prompted law enforcement officials and others to try some innovative approaches aimed at reducing substance abuse and making highways habitable again.
A primary step was the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council's decision to prohibit all alcohol sales during last month's North American Indian Days powwow. The five-day ban, believed to be the longest ever, irked some business owners but resulted in vastly reduced arrests, fewer wrecks, and more enjoyment for visitors and residents alike, Guardipee contends. A similar ban will be in effect this week, during the Heart Butte Society Celebration, Aug. 12-15.
In past years, Guardipee says, the tiny tribal jail in Browning typically housed up to 150 prisoners a night during North American Indian Days, with most of them booked on alcohol- or drug-related offenses. This year, he says, there were only 10-15 arrests a night.
"Basically, it was a very quiet weekend," Guardipee notes. "People saw they could spend a weekend without alcohol and come here and enjoy themselves. I would like to see (the council) go a bit further, but it's a first step."
Guardipee and others acknowledge that some folks took up bootlegging during the July ban, and others simply drove off the reservation to buy and consume alcohol. But all and all, he says, most people seemed to support the temporary bans, which tribal officials say could lead to broader restrictions in the future.
Along with trimming back alcohol sales, tribal activists this summer also formed the new Blackfeet DUI Task Force as a way of focusing prevention efforts on Native Americans who drink and drive.
According to Guardipee, one of the main goals of the tribal task force is to develop procedures for random drunk-driving checks and other detection methods on reservation roads. The group is also working with the Indian Health Service and the court system to expand prevention and rehabilitation programs.
One such program is the fledgling Blackfeet Tribal Alternative Court, which gives alcohol- and drug-impaired violators varied opportunities to obtain treatment and otherwise clean up their lives.
In the regular court system, substance-abusing offenders often found themselves looking at jail time to compensate for their acts of wrongdoing. But, as specialists point out, time behind bars rarely addresses root problems, and addicted inmates will often return to drinking and drugging once they are free. Instead, Blackfeet Tribal Court employees in 1997 vowed to try something different.
Strapped for cash and unable raise enough money to establish a full-blown alternative court, staffers volunteered their services for a year to ensure that tribal defendants battling drug and alcohol addictions would have another place to go. A two-year, $180,000 federal grant to fund the court was awarded last year, and the Blackfeet Tribe has kicked in matching money. Case workers say success stories are already becoming the norm, rather than the exception.
Defendants entering the alternative court system-the only one of its kind for adults in the state-can't be drug dealers or violent offenders, and they must plead guilty to their charges before being accepted, says coordinator Susan Spotted Bear. The defendant then must sign a contract saying that he or she will abide by program rules and work toward a variety of benchmarks. Staff members conduct in-depth evaluations to help determine what the defendant needs, and specialized programs are tailored to each individual.
Some people, Spotted Bear and counselor Don Mallo explain, simply need more restrictions than others, and home arrest, fines, and jail time are all used as deterrents for those who fail weekly drug tests. Monetary incentives are used, as well; participants are levied a $10 fine anytime their blood or urine turns up dirty or for any Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings they miss. But if a defendant successfully completes the year-long program, their sentence is deferred and can be removed from their record. A graduation ceremony, complete with elders singing honor songs and tribal leaders presenting awards, awaits at the end.
Mallo, who says he has personally lost at least 20 relatives to alcohol abuse, proudly notes that most of the clients who have enrolled in the program are staying away from drugs and drink. But what will show the true success of the alternative court, he says, is time.
"One thing I tell my clients is that staying clean and sober is going to be the hardest job in their lives," Mallo says. "It's a tough battle, these alcohol and drugs. It's a killer."