How The Chehalis Tribe Made Their Distillery Legal : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money The Chehalis Tribe had a plan to create jobs and revenue. The only problem? A racist law from 1834.
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Fighting A Racist 184-Year-Old Law

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Fighting A Racist 184-Year-Old Law

Fighting A Racist 184-Year-Old Law

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

Harry Pickernell is the chairman of the Chehalis Tribe in Washington State, but don't let that 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.

WOODS: Yeah. It's got a collar. Talking to us, he just wears a red T-shirt. He says it reminds him of his grandchildren.

PICKERNELL: It's one of my favorite shirts that says Papa Bear on it with the old guy with a couple of his grandkids.

WOODS: Harry's always been this kind of family-first guy. He still lives close to where he grew up in Oakville, which is the small town that borders and overlaps with the Chehalis reservation. And as Harry grew up, there weren't that many jobs in the area. And since the mid-1990s, the tribe's revenue has been pretty dependent on one source, the Lucky Eagle Casino. So a few years ago, Harry's tribe was looking to find a broader range of ways to make money for the tribe.

PICKERNELL: One of the items on the whiteboard that came up was, why not a distillery? I mean, it's up and coming. It's booming in Seattle. It was just one of those boats that we didn't want to miss.

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. So they partnered with an expert distiller. They had blueprints all grown up. The site was chosen, ready for construction. And then 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 And 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. It was a not a happy day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOODS: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Darian Woods here with our fantastic INDICATOR producer, Dave Blanchard.

DAVE BLANCHARD, BYLINE: Thank you, Darian. Today on the show, how a tribe's economic prosperity was threatened by a racist law and how that tribe fought back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOODS: The Chehalis Tribe have long resisted for their rights. They walked out of unfair treaty discussions with white settlers. They fought for salmon harvesting rights in the 1970s. And they won a legal battle with their county, which was trying to tax one of their properties.

PICKERNELL: We have our own laws. We have our own tax codes. Part of our sovereignty is us regulating ourselves.

BLANCHARD: And deciding to build a distillery on Chehalis land was their decision. Harry said building an alcohol distillery was a tough sell for some of the tribal members, and they had to convince the elders that this wasn't going to flood alcohol onto the reservation.

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.

PICKERNELL: Once we got that point home, everybody was on board with it.

WOODS: 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, but I don't know any other nice way to put that. But it was a racist and paternalistic law that had no sense being on the books in 2018.

BLANCHARD: Harry's view was they should approach it like all of the other struggles before this. They should fight it, go to Capitol Hill and try to get the law removed. And the other tribal leaders agreed, so they booked their Alaska Airlines tickets. And in early 2018, they were in the D.C. office of Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, the representative from southwest Washington.

WOODS: And here was their pitch to her.

PICKERNELL: We are ready to go. We have our equipment ordered. We have the land set aside. But there is an 1834 law that prevents us from building a distillery on Indian lands, and we don't know what to do about it.

WOODS: And Jaime was gobsmacked.

JAIME HERRERA BEUTLER: It wasn't laughable, but it was so absurd that this was something that is allowed everywhere, just not for Native Americans on a reservation. I can't imagine being told that, like, in 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.

WOODS: 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 the 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.

PICKERNELL: It was one of those moments where the universe came together and everything clicked at the exact time it needed to.

WOODS: They finished their meeting pretty happy, but it soon dawned on them that this was still Congress that they were facing, not exactly known for an agile, move-fast-break-things kind of mindset.

BLANCHARD: Right. I mean, it might be able to break things, but it does it slowly.

WOODS: Yeah, it doesn't move fast, which is kind of what they needed. They couldn't just leave their land idle forever.

BLANCHARD: But there was some progress being made. By April, Jaime had organized a House subcommittee hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Native Affairs will come to order.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

It was a little a little daunting. Here I am, a small kid from Oakville, Wash., testifying in Washington, D.C. But 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

BLANCHARD: The bill passed in the House pretty quickly, actually, and then it got through the Senate. And then it went to the president at the time, Donald Trump.

PICKERNELL: Then we realized, you know what? Now it's got to go to the president's desk. It's never going to make it past the sitting president's desk because his track record on minorities was not the best, to be honest.

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: They went straight to construction and that meant about a hundred jobs. And 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. Harry and his whole team got together for the grand opening.

PICKERNELL: We had a ribbon cutting. You'll never know who was there because everybody had the mask on.

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.

WOODS: The cocktails? Well, they fund things like tribal education programs for young tribal members like Harry's grandkids.

PICKERNELL: I want them to be sitting at this chair one day and just continue the work that not only I started, but all the chairmans (ph) before me to progress toward that ultimate goal of self-sufficiency.

WOODS: And these days, you can find Harry at The Talking Cedar.

PICKERNELL: We get out there probably once a week for dinner, and I'm kind of partial to the fish and chips and the lemonade. So we invite you down. Come on down. Enjoy it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOODS: This episode was produced by Emma Peaslee and Brittany Cronin, with help from Josh Newell and Gilly Moon. It was fact-checked by Sam Cai. Kate Concannon is our editor. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

By the way, Dave took Harry up on his invitation.

Do you have a cocktail on the way?

BLANCHARD: I have a cocktail that I'm sipping at the moment, in fact.

WOODS: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE RATTLING IN CUP)

BLANCHARD: The Peachy Keen. It is a beautiful spring day here in the Pacific Northwest, and it is the perfect little spring drink to be enjoying this day with.

WOODS: I'm just sitting here in my closet to record this here in New York, feeling very happy for you, Dave.

BLANCHARD: (Laughter).

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