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A Racist Law From 1834 Stands In The Way Of A Chehalis Tribe Business Venture

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the Chehalis tribe in Washington state wanted to build their own distillery, they learned it was illegal to distill alcohol on Native American land. Darian Woods and Dave Blanchard from our podcast The Indicator report on how the tribe responded to this racist law.

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DARIAN WOODS: Harry Pickernell is the chairman of the Chehalis tribe in Washington state. But don't let that high title fool you into thinking that he's just some kind of suit.

HARRY PICKERNELL: I'm not the suit and tie kind of chairman. If I have a polo shirt on, I'm dressed up.

DAVE BLANCHARD: And a few years ago Harry's tribe was looking to find a broader range of ways to make revenue.

PICKERNELL: One of the items on the whiteboard that came up was, why not a distillery?

WOODS: The tribal leaders imagined a huge restaurant and bar with a distillery out the back. It would serve meals - like fish and chips, Harry's favorite - all washed back with a cocktail made from their own artisanal vodka and whiskey. One day in the tribal headquarters, the Chehalis attorney came rushing over, and he said, we've got a problem.

PICKERNELL: An old law from 1834 that says, distilleries in Indian country are not allowed, and they will be destroyed if you build one. So that kind of put a stop to everything.

WOODS: So this whole project was intended to make jobs and to bring cash to the tribe. It was there to fund health and education and cultural services. So it was a real blow to learn that even though this project had full support of the Chehalis tribe, the federal government wouldn't let them proceed.

PICKERNELL: It was so paternalistic. And I don't want to - if there's a better word for racist, it's out there.

BLANCHARD: Harry's view was they should fight it. And the other tribal leaders agreed. So in early 2018, they were in the D.C. office of Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, a representative from Southwest Washington.

WOODS: And Jaime was gobsmacked.

JAIME HERRERA BEUTLER: I can't imagine being told that, like, in, you know, 21st century America. Well, sorry, you know, if you're not on the tribal lands, you absolutely can do this unless you're on tribal land.

BLANCHARD: Jaime thought the law was so unjust they had a pretty good chance of convincing a lot of her colleagues in Congress to support the repeal. So she said to Harry and other tribal leaders, let's do this. She put forward a bill to get rid of the law.

HERRERA BEUTLER: Yeah, let's fix this.

BLANCHARD: By April, Jaime had organized a House subcommittee hearing...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...And Alaska Native Affairs will come to order.

BLANCHARD: ...Where she invited Harry to testify.

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PICKERNELL: Southwest Washington has long been an economically depressed area lacking in businesses and jobs for tribal members.

And I did have on the polo, and it was my nice polo, so...

WOODS: You know things are serious when he's got the special polo on.

PICKERNELL: Absolutely.

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PICKERNELL: The tribe appreciates the committee scheduling this hearing and urges swift consideration of H.R. 5317.

WOODS: And in December 2018, Harry got a phone call. Donald J. Trump had squiggled his signature using that special Sharpie onto the bill. It had been signed into law.

PICKERNELL: Oh, my gosh, it's done. We can - we did it.

WOODS: And so what - celebratory fish and chips? What happened that night?

PICKERNELL: (Laughter) I think I had a celebratory lemonade at the time.

WOODS: In June 2020, the restaurant and the bar for the distillery was opened, with an opening crew of about 70 staff. It was named The Talking Cedar.

BLANCHARD: And to Harry, all of this - the distillery, the restaurant, getting the law changed - you know, it was not about the cocktails, really. It was about sovereignty, the tribe defining its future and its economic prosperity on its own terms.

Dave Blanchard.

WOODS: Darian Woods, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.