The Crow Legislature is considering a bill that would introduce alcohol on the Tribe’s Reservation. It’s part of a plan to revitalize the Crow economy with casino dollars.
Right now, the Crow casino, Apsaalooke Nights, is just an empty room with about 200 gaming machines shut off. Some wear sticky notes that say things like, “fix monitor” and “won’t connect to server.”
It’s been closed for violating gaming regulations for two years now, but Aaron Bad Bear is helping bring it back to code and open it back up.
"This is our casino site here," Bad Bear says. "See so now, walking through, we want to designate areas, so we’re bringing poker back cause we can have poker."
Another thing that could be on the table? Alcohol.
The Crow Reservation has been dry for more than 150 years.
Past attempts to change that have failed, but now, the legislature might try again. Tribal Chairman A.J. Not Afraid introduced a bill this summer that would issue a special-use permit for casinos on the Crow Reservation to serve alcohol, possibly including tribally-owned Apsaalooke Nights.
Under the bill, any alcohol served would have to be consumed at the casinos but some worry its impact could go beyond those walls and increase rates of alcoholism.
Health data from the state health department is conflicting. The same dataset shows that people in Big Horn County are half as likely to binge drink than in other parts of the state but five times more likely to have the conditions associated with it.
Data aside, some tribal members sense there’s a problem and that this bill would make it worse.
But casino manager Bad Bear says he would tightly manage it if Apsaalooke Nights makes it into the final versions of the bill. He says he’s just trying to provide the experience some of his customers demand.
"We’d get a couple of people coming in asking if we serve drinks, they’d be like, 'Oh, you guys don’t serve alcohol.’ They kind of expected that, just from the casino experience itself," Bad Bear said.
He says alcohol would help make the casino more of a destination for people from Billings and Sheridan, Wyoming. When the casino was open, they used to keep track of how much money their customers spent. He says nine out of ten of the top paying people were from out of town.
"There’s only so much of our own money we can make of our own people coming in," Bad Bear said.
He says alcohol would just be the first step. A hotel would be next.
He hopes to put the revenue back into the tribe by distributing per-capita payments based on their profits and offering students scholarships.
In downtown Crow Agency, it’s lunch time. Boach Chalepah (28) and Marshea Little Light (32) are selling pocos out of their car.
"It’s like a fry bread with hamburger potatoes and cheese and onions in side of it. It’s good," Chalepah said.
Chalepah and Little Light say they’ve heard of the bill. They say they used to drink but don’t anymore, since they’re raising nine kids now.
"Drinking is not good on the Rez, 'cause of all the people that died," Chalepah said.
"Yeah, I just buried my sister-in-law from cirrhosis. That’s why I don’t think it’s a good idea," Little Light added.
Cirrhosis is irreversible scarring of the liver, most often caused by alcoholism, hepatitis, obesity or diabetes. For her 31-year-old sister-in-law, Little Light says it was alcohol-related. She worries things like that would happen more often if alcohol were introduced on Crow land.
That said, she knows people already drink here. She says there are bootleggers and that the closest beer is never more than 12 miles away in Hardin.
John, who’s around the corner filling up his minivan, says that’s close enough. He’s a Crow tribal member, but would only give me his first name since it’s such a controversial topic within the Tribe.
His first problem is that he says this bill would just benefit outsiders.
"I don’t know why they want to bring it in here. That’s an open door for you white people to come in here. We don’t actually need alcohol. We’ll be like Hardin, have all these drunks here," John said.
His second is that he wants the Tribe to consider other kinds of economic development, like mineral extraction.
"We’ve got minerals. We’ve got all that stuff. Why in the hell are the looking into god damn alcohol. How come they can’t develop those, sand and gravel and all that other stuff," John said.
The Crow sit on one of the richest coal beds in the country but have seen their profits plummet after losing a crucial federal subsidy earlier his year.
John's third point is that he doesn’t buy this will be a one-off permit.
"They want to have it over at the casino but you never know what’s going to happen," John said.
He points to the gas station and says if this bill passes, they’ll want in on it too.
If the bill becomes law, it would leave the state with two dry reservations: the Northern Cheyenne Nation next door and the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy's Reservation.
The bill is currently being marked up by the Tribe’s Gaming Committee. No vote has been scheduled yet.
Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America corps member.