When the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation began making plans for a craft distillery in the past year, they went through all the typical steps — designing facilities, purchasing equipment and obtaining building permits.
Then, they found they’d have to go through one more step: repealing a federal law.
“Every person who shall, within the Indian country, set up or continue any distillery for manufacturing ardent spirits, shall be liable to a penalty of $1,000,” reads U.S. Code Title 26, Chapter 6, Subchapter II, Section 251. “... [Authorities] shall forthwith destroy and break up the same.”
The long-forgotten law was passed in 1834, and it apparently escaped notice in 1953 when the government relinquished most federal restrictions on alcohol on Native American land. In 2018, it’s still on the books, and the tribe heard from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that their distillery couldn’t go forward while the law was still in effect.
So the tribe went to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground. She wrote up the legislation and Chehalis Tribal Chairman Harry Pickernell Sr. went to Congress.
“By allowing the Tribe’s project to move forward, repealing Section 251 will create jobs both for Tribal members and the surrounding communities and provide an economic return to the Tribe for use to support its tribal programs,” Pickernell told a House Natural Resources subcommittee during a hearing on the bill in April. “These will include jobs constructing the distillery, learning the distillery production trade, and addressing the marketing and distribution of the Tribe’s products.”
Two weeks later, on May 8, the bill was advanced by the Natural Resources Committee, and it awaits a vote in the House.
“To leave it on the books is borderline discriminatory,” Herrera Beutler said in an interview last week. “It’s legal for other residents of Southwest Washington.”
Herrera Beutler noted that there’s no such ban on sale or consumption of distilled spirits on tribal land, just production.
The Chehalis Reservation is headquartered in Oakville and extends to Chehalis Village in Grays Harbor County.
“We have a lot of small craft distillers and brewers just popping up everywhere,” Herrera Beutler said. “It’s just absurd that [the tribe] can’t do what others in our area are doing. … It’s not about consumption, it’s — is there going to be an economic growth benefit?”
While the Chehalis Tribe has largely pushed for the measure, others have expressed support as well.
“This is a piece of empowerment that promotes economic self-sufficiency,” Cowlitz Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall told The Chronicle. He described the original law as a holdover from the days when the government took a “paternalistic” approach to Native Americans.
The Cowlitz Tribe has no immediate plans to build a distillery, he said, though it has discussed a brewpub in the past. Still, if the bill passes, it may be worth getting in on the craft beverage boom.
“Certainly it’s an opportunity,” Iyall said. “There’s a driving market there that needs to be explored.”
Herrera Beutler said she’s been given no indication on when the House might vote on the bill, or what its prospects are in the Senate. But given the overwhelming bipartisan support for the bill, she’s optimistic it will move quickly.
“I definitely notice the momentum,” she said. “Once I told people what it was, it was easier to get people behind it. … It has moved with a lot less blood, sweat and tears than some of my other pieces.”
The push has picked up national momentum as well, with the New York Times running an opinion column earlier this month advocating for the repeal of the tribal distilling ban. Backers are hopeful that support translates to quick action, never a sure prospect in Congress.
“Time is of the essence for this legislation,” Pickernell said in his testimony. “The Tribe has its building permits in hand, has completed the full design of the project, purchased some of the equipment, and needs to continue to expend additional funds for development of this project.”
Herrera Beutler said any credit for the bill belongs to the Chehalis Tribe, and she’s hopeful it passes in time to benefit the project that brought it to the national consciousness.
“They’ve been instrumental,” she said.
“They’re always wanting to work with the community, and they work on a myriad of different issues. … They’ve already put money into permit planning and construction planning. My hope is that we get this going so they don’t lose any momentum.”
Pickernell did not respond to a request for comment.