While unofficial election results show the ballot proposition to ban alcohol sales in Bethel has failed, many people living outside of Bethel went into election day hoping the proposition would pass.
What happens in Bethel affects the entire Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The city serves as the hub to the region’s 56 communities, and only a couple communities have direct flights from Anchorage. For all the others, what arrives in their communities first passes through Bethel. That includes government services, supplies, medical care, and people. So when Bethel legalized alcohol sales two years ago, the alcohol siphoned into the region’s communities. Most of those villages are dry, and most of them are now are ready to see that booze pipeline cut off.
“I would support being close," said George Sam from Lower Kalskag on Bethel's election day. "Because I lost how many of my relatives, starting from my oldest brother, older sister, first cousin, my niece, my nephew. It’s a heartache.”
Mike James from Alukanuk agreed: “We’re tired of seeing all the death and the destruction, people going to jail and getting charged with assault and battery and sex crimes."
Even the alcohol that does not reach Alukanak on the Lower Yukon River, James says, still affects his community.
"We’ve had people from Alukanak living here in Bethel, and they have abused alcohol and used it the wrong way," James said. "Alcohol shouldn’t be rampant here in the bush."
Napaskiak is one of the closest communities to Bethel. Only seven river miles and five air miles downstream, it's where Earl Samuelson lives. He wants Bethel to return to local option. Samuelson volunteers for Search and Rescue and doesn’t want to repeat a winter like the last two when emergency calls skyrocketed.
“Last winter it was one death after another, alcohol-related," Samuelson said. "We had the drownings; we had the people freezing out there.”
Samuelson saw an immediate drop in dangerous and emergency activity in Napaskiak once the AC Quickstop liquor store in Bethel shut down in May. That day, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board heard nearly five hours of tearful public testimony on how the store’s liquor sales were devastating the local community. The board refused to renew the store’s liquor license.
Kwethluk Tribal Council President Tanya Epchook says that life in her village transformed that day.
“Our domestic violence calls went down. Our intoxicated individual calls went down. We’re not necessarily putting our own members in protective custody as much,” Epchook said, smiling.
Child welfare cases in Kwelthluk also went down. To keep it that way, Epchook wants alcohol sales in Bethel to end.
In July, Bethel Native Corporation reopened the city’s only other alcohol store, Bethel Spirits, and serves only Alaska-made beer and wine. Fili’s Pizza also serves only beer and wine. During the months that these operations have been the only sources of alcohol sales in Bethel, no increase has been seen in alcohol-related emergency calls.
But another store could open in Bethel that would sell liquor like AC Quickstop did, and Epchook, like many people around the region, doesn’t want to see her community put at risk again.