RED CLIFF, Wis. – One of the last relics of federal prohibition may soon come to an end, after Congress voted late last month to lift a 184-year-old ban that prohibited distilleries on tribal lands.
Once signed into law, American Indians across the country can tap into the budding industry of craft spirits on their own lands, no longer stifled by a policy from a time when federal authorities forcibly removed tribes from their homelands and enacted discriminatory statutes aimed at choking off Native wealth.
The future of Indian distilling already has begun in northern Wisconsin, along the birch-lined shores of Lake Superior, where one family has found a way to bring jobs to a reservation — and, perhaps, to move past the stereotype of the “drunken Indian” that has long haunted its people.
Here on the heavily forested, sparsely populated reservation of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, down the snow-covered road from the lakefront casino, sits Copper Crow, the first Indian-owned distillery in the United States.
In a well-lit room with high ceilings and concrete floors, owner Curt Basina sticks a finger into the stream of clear liquid that flows from a 10-tiered column still, tasting the whey-based vodka he is developing. The vodka tastes faintly sweet with only a small bite.
“Almost there,” he says, a slight grin under his graying handlebar mustache.
The air in the distillery is heavy with the sour smell of the wheat-based mash fermenting in plastic tubs at the other end of the room. Later in the day, Basina will transfer the mash into a copper still with carbon-filtered water to begin the heating process. Two crow feathers are pinched between its pipes to honor the distillery’s name and the tribal traditions it represents.
“The crow helps you find your purpose in life,” Basina said. “It’s very meaningful in the tribal culture.”
Basina, a former Wisconsin highway patrolman of 17 years, is one of 7,300 members of a tribe that lived on the south shores of the Great Lake their ancestors called Gichigami well before French fur trappers arrived to trade with them in the 17th century and the federal government ceded a reservation to the tribe in 1854.
Basina was aware of the federal ban when his family began to plan out the distillery, but soon learned they were exempt from the archaic statute. The distillery is within the reservation, but it’s not on tribal land — it’s on private land his family owns. They got the green light from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to start selling vodka last April.
His distillery illustrates how Native entrepreneurs are trying to bring small businesses to reservations, harnessing burgeoning consumer trends. The brewery, winery and distillery industries were the second-fastest-growing for manufacturing in 2017, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
In 1834, when Congress banned distilleries in Indian Country, legislators said it was to “preserve peace on the frontier.” Nearly two centuries later, Basina is glad to see the language go.
“I don’t think you can get away with saying something like that today,” he said.
Since the founding of this country, the federal government has taken a paternalistic approach to Indian consumption of alcohol, said Peter Mancall, a professor of history at the University of Southern California.
The bitter irony, he said, is that it was colonial Europeans who introduced alcohol to native populations for economic and religious purposes, and Americans who continued to use it as a trading tool in buying furs and making treaties.
The same law that banned distilleries on tribal lands in 1834 also banned the sale of alcohol to Indians on reservations. And there were many more federal laws like it to enforce Native prohibition.
As a 1996 article in the Arizona State Law Journal said, “Ineffective federal and racist state legislation cemented the stigma of the ‘drunken Indian’ as a race helpless to control itself against alcohol.”
But the stereotype survived and still affects the way many people, including some Indians, view alcohol’s place on reservations.
It’s a stereotype of which Linda Basina, Curt Basina’s wife of 37 years, was well aware before the couple began the Copper Crow Distillery on the Red Cliff Reservation.
“We weren’t immune to it,” said Basina, a special education teacher’s aide. “We tried to be sensitive to it. Yes, we are Native Americans, but we can also be successful at this business and give back to the community.”
There was some initial pushback against the prospect of a distillery on the reservation, said Nathan Gordon, the tribal vice chairman, adding that people thought it was insensitive to the community’s history.
But the tribal council also had to weigh the fact that the tribe allows alcohol to be sold at its casino and convenience stores, and that a distillery would bring jobs and new patrons to the reservation, Gordon said.
“It’s exciting to see a business,” said Gordon, sitting in his office adorned with a ceremonial headdress, traditional art and a wood-carved bald eagle. “Curt is an entrepreneur, he has a dream, and he’s moving things forward.”
Copper Crow, which employs eight people, markets its liquor primarily to people who don’t live on the reservation, bringing needed tourism dollars to the reservation, whose residents largely work for the tribe and in commercial fishing.
Like many reservations across the country, Red Cliff is struggling. According to its 2018 census, the reservation has an 18 percent unemployment rate and a $29,000 median household income, which is roughly half the state and national averages.
The Basinas made the distillery about their family, the tribe and the area — everything from the Chippewa canoe hanging from the ceiling to the apple brandy aging in barrels in the backroom.
“This is where we’re from,” Curt Basina said. “This is where our roots are. Our ties are to this community.”