One Hundred Years of Prohibition at the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation


[Originally written for the Oregon Beer Growler for their online journal, in 2012, their site is either down or they no longer feature the article.]

One Hundred Years of Prohibition at the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation

David G. Lewis, PhD

The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon is a federally recognized tribe that was restored in 1983. Previous to the final termination of the tribe in 1956, the people of the Grand Ronde Reservation lived there for 100 years. The people are the descendants of over 27 tribes and bands from western Oregon; the main tribes being the Clackamas Chinook, Kalapuya, Molalla, Upper Umpqua, Athapaskan, Takelma, Tillamook, and Shasta. The reservation was organized as a military encampment where travel off the reservation was strictly controlled and people needed passes to leave. The military also prevented unwanted white people from entering the reservation, many to sell illegal substances, to eliminate racial conflicts.

From the earliest administrative history of the reservations, the United States government worked to control the access of native people to alcohol and made it a crime to sell to natives. The control of alcohol was linked to issues of halting the corruption of moral values of the Indians, and to pseudo-scientific stereotypes that linked natives to alcoholism.  

Prohibition for the tribes of the United States was a constant state for over a century. In Oregon the initiation of the treaties and the tribal removals to the reservations in 1856 caused the federal government to impose laws and rules against the sale of alcohol to the Indian people on the reservation.  In fact the Treaty with the Kalapuya etc.  states

“In order to prevent the evils of intemperance among said Indians, it is hereby provided that any one of them who shall drink liquor, or procure it for other Indians to drink, may have his or her proportion of the annuities withheld from him or her for such time as the President may determine.”[1]

The Bureau of Indian Affairs passed policies against American citizens selling alcohol to the Indians and disallowed travel onto the reservation to protect the tribes from those sales. Indians at the reservation were tried and found guilty of crimes of bringing spirits onto the reservation.

The United States has a paternalistic attitude towards the tribes, and since the 1830s has considered the tribes to be domestic dependant nations. The tribes were therefore in the eyes of the federal government dependant on the federal government for their sovereign rights. But the government took their paternalism a bit further, in managing some of the other benefits that all Americans enjoyed, imbibing in alcoholic spirits, which were considered immoral to many of the conservative religions in the United States. On reservations, many policies were imposed that were religious in character, including handing over the education of the tribal children to missionary organizations within on-reservation boarding and day schools. At Grand Ronde, the Catholic Missionaries were given the contract to educate the children, and Father Adrien Croquet of Belgium organized a boarding school with an order of sisters to run the daily operations.

For a hundred years it was illegal for tribal people to purchase or have alcohol sold to them.  In 1892 the United States Congress passed legislation making it illegal for the sale of “liquors of whatever kind on Indian reservations.”[i]  Thereafter similar bills were updated and passed in 1897, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910. In 1924 the United States Congress passed the Native American Citizenship Act making all Indian people within the United States dual citizens, of their tribal nations and of the United States. Previously, only those Indians that had served in the military on behalf of the United States in wars had gained citizenship. But in many states there remained laws on the books that disallowed the sale of alcohol to Indians as a class.

At Grand Ronde, the people had been heavily subjected to education and assimilation through federal policies. They adopted an American lifestyle, with several churches and schools, musical bands, and town league baseball teams. They won town league baseball championships and even sent some talented men to the minor leagues. They held fairs and had dances and later movies were shown in town. They lived in a similar manner to other urban peoples around them.

Life on the reservations was rugged and there was not much wage labor to be had. Those half dozen or less who had agency jobs got half the wages of white men doing the same job. So many people would leave the reservation seasonally to find the labor in harvesting Oregon’s natural and agricultural resources. The men and women became farm laborers in the Willamette Valley and helped to build the state into an agricultural powerhouse. Tribal families joined the population of migrant farmworkers in the Willamette Valley and picked beans, berries, and hops. In the Salem-independence-Wheatland area, hop-picking was a huge industry for over 50 years and made the area renowned for the crop.  The hops industry collapsed in the 1950s when a red mite infestation wiped out the fields and forced farmers to turn to beans and berries.

Many men joined the logging outfits and spent a good portion of their lives as loggers traveling throughout the west harvesting old-growth timber. They were respected for being hard workers and natural foresters and many became crew leaders.

Indian farmers did not have many choices to make an income. Agriculture was seasonal, and their farms were on poor soils and there was not much regular wage labor in the rural community. Discrimination against Indians was fairly common in the region and this situation would limit prospects for gainful work.  Elders recall that they used the lush forests of the Coast Range to harvest forest products like moss, chittum bark, and berries. This is an activity that was somewhat capitalized upon in the 1930s and 40s when the Federal government under the Rehabilitation Program (1936) built a cannery at the reservation and helped develop a canning industry for the community. The Indians would can fruits, jellies, vegetables, meats, and fish and sell their products to the railroads and to department stores in Portland. The most well known of their products was “Gay Moccasin: Wild Blackberry Jam” which was sold as a boutique item in Portland and Seattle.

Another cottage industry that was common was that of weaving baskets. Women would harvest hazel, willow, and Juncus materials from the land around them and create baskets for sale to the local markets. The materials would be gathered the previous year and seasoned for use the next season. Elders recall how their parents and grandparents would drive up to McMinnville and sell the baskets to known households where people would buy them for a few dollars apiece. Many of the baskets were utilitarian hampers and laundry, and sewing baskets. Grand Ronde baskets were a known commodity in the markets in Portland.

Understanding the history and practice of the Indians utilizing the forest and lands around them to make an income, it is not surprising that they chose to make liquor for sale, trade, and barter to the surrounding white communities. Homebrew liquor trade became a regular medium of exchange for the tribes in the region beginning in the 19th century. Indians at the reservation would bottle batches of their ales and wines and trade for foodstuffs in urban areas like Sheridan or McMinnville. Elders state that they could get a pair of shoes from a batch of their ale.

Many reservation families took up the practice of making their own homebrews. Using crops from their personal gardens and perhaps gleaning the local fields of hops and berries gave them the raw materials to develop their own recipes. Cannery workers would secure sugar legally or illegally and use this to feed the live cultures of the mash. Elders at Grand Ronde recall it was a common practice, that many families would have a batch of homebrew in constant production and that many of the farmers used the unused cattle feeding troughs on their barns to mix and ferment their brews.

One elder remembers how her brothers were left to mind the farm one day and the pigs got into the brewing operation and became quite drunk and that her brother did not get in trouble. Another elder recalls how he found large gallon-sized square wine bottles in his grandparent’s woodshed and broke them, and got in big trouble. Other elders remember how their parents and grandparents would make ales and elderberry wine. In fact, there is a location at the reservation called wine alley, now McCallister Road, where all types of activities occurred, one of which likely involved secretive gathering of youth drinking together. Indeed at many reservations, there are forest roads and river camps where there are locations in relative seclusion where groups of people (students, workers, families) would drink and party on the weekends. This is not uncommon for youth and people in most towns and cities in the United States. 

When Prohibition came along in 1919, Indians did not hesitate but continued making their moonshine and capitalized upon it by selling it into the most lucrative urban markets. There are stories of Tribal people down as far as Crescent City, California making runs to Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco, California to sell their alcohol to the growing underground speakeasy establishments in the cities.  This was a common enough practice in Oregon generally and there are numerous reports in the daily news of moonshiners being caught by the police on runs from eastern Oregon and elsewhere.  It is unclear how prevalent this activity was for all reservations but for those on the west coast like Grand Ronde this was a way to have an income and people remember their families participating in the practice.

The “rum-running” trade of the tribes was made possible because Indian reservations were federal trust lands and only subject to federal laws, and Tribal people were not normally subject to state law while on the reservation. It would have had to be federal authorities who investigated liquor use and sales on the reservations and in the 20th century, there were few efforts to investigate such activities in small remote rural populations. There was only one federal agent who investigated such reports, Indian Agent Edwin Chalcraft was the only agent for a time in the 1920s who was assigned to investigate such things.

There is one case that we know of where someone was found out giving liquor to a boy. In 1905 Dr. Andrew Kershaw received a letter about a Leano (Leno) boy of the reservation being given liquor. The letter states, “ a letter from Mr. McNary… says in his judgment the State has surrendered to the United States government all of its sovereignty to lands used as Indian reservations… a crime upon such reservation, and especially between Indians of such reservation, it must be prosecuted in the United States Court.”[ii]  There is no indication that the case was pursued in federal court.

There were other instances of native peoples having overnight drinking parties at the houses of influential tribal members. Normally there would be drinking and gambling activities, and while these parties were normally secretive, in a few instances brawls would break out causing the death of someone. These events would be investigated by local law enforcement and the murderers normally caught and tried in federal court. One such murder was the death of Foster Wacheno, who was murdered by Louis Savage during an instance of such a party. Savage was tried and convicted in Oregon City and spent time in prison. 

In the 1920s, at Grand Ronde Indian Reservation it would have been very unlikely to have any federal authorities looking for wrongdoing as the people were mainly left on their own. The agency had been moved to the Siletz Reservation in 1909, and Grand Ronde had less attention than previously. It was not until 1953 when Grand Ronde chose to be included in Public Law 280 that state law was applied to the reservation. PL 280 allowed state law to apply to Indian reservations where the community voted to allow this and was instituted to prepare for the termination of the reservations and the transition of the people and reservation lands from federal to state jurisdiction.

When the nation was preparing for the termination of the tribes, Oregon Governor Douglas McKay hosted an Indian Affairs conference in Salem in 1950. At the conference, several tribal leaders pointed out some of the laws which did not allow them to be equal to Oregon citizens.

Addressed the impending termination of the tribes and the transition of the people to be under state jurisdiction, Boyd Jackson of the Klamath Reservation stated:

Inasmuch as the state has seen fit to have a law passed prohibiting the use of liquor among ourselves, then I hope you will be farsighted enough to have this law repealed. That is one of the major reasons we consider ourselves outcasts. . . . You have also discriminated against us by prohibiting intermarriage among your people. . . . The same holds true as far as the prohibition law is concerned (McKay 1950).

Abe Hudson from Grand Ronde followed with a similar sentiment:

A law has been enacted . . . that an Indian cannot buy a drink. It is one thing I don’t like – there isn’t an Indian here that likes it either – that an Indian cannot go into a saloon like a white man, yet they want to make us white men (McKay 1950).

Other laws in different states at this time would not allow Indians into the front doors of restaurants, or to eat within restaurants. In Oregon, Indian people could not marry white people until 1952 when the law was repealed, and in other states, Indians on reservations were not allowed social security benefits, nor the ability to buy insurance or get veterans benefits. 

Regardless of the laws of discrimination against the tribes, either formal or informal, many tribal people continued to run their own affairs on the reservation, living in relative freedom in their secrecy. The reservation was not a federal subsistence reservation and so monthly supplies were not sent to the people, they being expected to provide for their own needs. Many reservations like Grand Ronde were somewhat remote and federal management in the 20th century became more relaxed. People at Grand Ronde even complained that they were not getting all of the services of other tribes.

Community members today continue to recall that homebrewing was a common activity that developed because of the discriminatory laws passed by the state and federal government. In society, whenever there are differential treatments communities of social and ethnic minorities there have developed underground economies. We see this today in the drug trade. Community members at Grand Ronde say that many people still pursue home brewing of their unique recipes, which is now legal and more accepted.

[1] Article 7, Treaty with the Kalapuya etc. 1855.

[i] Act of Congress Approve July 23, 1892, sec. 2139.

[ii] Letter of June 28th 1905, Oregon Historical Society Archives, Andrew Kershaw Collection

[some sections of this essay were edited and added to and so this is different from the 2012 version.]

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