BREWING A NEW CULTURE: Pub challenges the perception of drinking on the Fort Peck reservation

Story by Jack­son Bol­stad
Pho­tos by Austin J. Smith


RESIDENTS OF Wolf Point can recall when the build­ing sat vacant before it under­went mul­ti­ple trans­for­ma­tions. First it was a pool hall. Then a meat locker. Later, a law firm. But now the build­ing, made of dark brick, has taps jut­ting from pol­ished chrome cool­ers, drip­ping gold and glis­ten­ing liq­uid behind the tast­ing room’s 40-foot wooden bar.

Sur­round­ing the room, high on a set of shelves, stand more than 196 empty growlers col­lected from brew­eries across the United States.

On this evening, the micro­brew­ery fea­tured India Pale Ale, wheat, stout, Belgian-style ale, pale ale and Scot­tish ale. Also, the bowls of pop­corn were free with a beer purchase.

Missouri Breaks Brewing co-owner Mark Sansaver jokes with a niece during a Friday afternoon visit to the Wolf Point pub. Sansaver works at the Fort Peck Community College business office handling grant funding and, because of limited mobility, rarely makes it to the pub.Co-owners Mark Sansaver, an Assini­boine tribal mem­ber, and Mark Zilkoski, a local doc­tor, opened Mis­souri Breaks Brew­ing in 2009 on the Fort Peck reser­va­tion, home of the Assini­boine and Sioux tribes and one of the larger, more remote reser­va­tions in the state. The estab­lish­ment is one of only two brew­eries located on a Mon­tana reservation.

In the five years it has served craft beer on the reser­va­tion, Mis­souri Breaks has seen lit­tle to no back­lash from the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity. This is rare, con­sid­er­ing the deep and com­plex his­tory that Native Amer­i­can tribes have with alco­hol, not only in con­sump­tion, but also per­cep­tion. Instead, the locally-owned micro­brew­ery has made itself into a wel­com­ing, if not relax­ing, hotspot, a stark con­trast to the generations-old stereo­type of addic­tion and drunkenness.

Peo­ple wouldn’t con­ceive of doing this, because of the stereo­types, the issues, the eco­nom­ics,” Sansaver said.

Fort Peck has a high unem­ploy­ment rate, a frac­tured demog­ra­phy and a his­tory of alcohol-related issues — all attrib­utes that can lead to exces­sive alco­hol con­sump­tion, said Adri­ann Ricker, for­mer qual­ity prac­tice man­ager at the Spot­ted Bull Recov­ery Resource Center.

Open­ing the brew­ery wasn’t some­thing that we took lightly,” Zilkoski said. “I mean we are adding another bar to Wolf Point, Mon­tana. We’re adding another bar to a reservation.”

Wolf Point’s North­east­ern Mon­tana Health Ser­vices sees around 160 peo­ple dur­ing the week­ends, said Zilkoski, the community’s only doc­tor. He said alco­hol con­tributes to some vis­its, though it is not the main rea­son peo­ple are admit­ted to the hospital.

Mark Zilkoski, also known as “Doc’Z’,” has passed brewing duties on to his daughter, Katie. Zilkoski still brews specialty beers but he mainly uses the pub as an after-work hangout, trading growlers for Hutterite turkeys and running dishes when the pub tender gets overwhelmed.How­ever, most alcohol-related inci­dents the hos­pi­tal does see are peo­ple who are “very, very drunk.” In most cases, the per­son ends up get­ting so intox­i­cated that they end up injur­ing them­selves or oth­ers in some type of reck­less activ­ity, he said.

As a result, Sansaver said the brew­ery is seri­ous about its com­mu­nity respon­si­bil­ity. When you serve alco­hol, you are respon­si­ble for the well-being of your clien­tele, espe­cially fel­low tribal mem­bers, he said. Open­ing up a brew­ery on a reser­va­tion pro­motes drink­ing high alco­hol con­tent beer for not only Native Amer­i­cans, but also the rest of the com­mu­nity. He had to con­sider those implications.

As a tribal mem­ber, I def­i­nitely thought about social respon­si­bil­ity and what does this mean to the com­mu­nity,” Sansaver said. “There is a huge prob­lem with alco­hol on the reser­va­tion, fatal deaths, youth drink­ing and so forth.”

Since 2011, more than 60 per­cent of the Spot­ted Bull Recov­ery Resource Center’s clients have been diag­nosed with acute and severe alco­hol prob­lems. The cen­ter has seen approx­i­mately 850 patients dur­ing that time.

Alco­hol has become a gen­er­a­tional prob­lem because of the Fort Peck reservation’s long his­tory with poverty, Ricker said. The reser­va­tion is expe­ri­enc­ing its fourth gen­er­a­tion that has been exposed to alcohol.

In our soci­ety, (kids) learn to drink from what they see with their fam­i­lies, and a lot of that is to excess and par­ty­ing through­out the nights,” Ricker said.

Peo­ple tend to place a stigma on Native Amer­i­cans when it comes to drink­ing. Ricker said the per­cep­tion is that peo­ple either don’t do it at all or are drunks — there is no mid­dle ground. Any­where else in the world, some­one can have a glass of wine with din­ner and it’s no big deal, but peo­ple think Native Amer­i­cans are just drink­ing to get drunk, she said.

Com­bat­ing alco­hol issues on the reser­va­tion will require a change in social and cul­tural norms, Ricker said. Alco­hol prob­lems later in life stem a lot from what peo­ple learn when they are grow­ing up. If the bars and par­ties are the only option, then that becomes the way peo­ple learn to drink, she said.

DURING A SPRING evening, Mark Sansaver leaned for­ward in his chair and clasped a red straw between his lips, tak­ing a long sip of rich, dark beer. Sansaver paused between gulps to catch his breath.

So Mark, I thought you said you weren’t going to have a beer,” said Mark Zilkoski, seated to Sansaver’s right.

Exactly, I said ‘I wasn’t going to have a beer,’” Sansaver said. “I’ve had two.”

Sansaver likes to come into Mis­souri Breaks and enjoy a few beers with friends and fam­ily while dis­cussing the lat­est news in Wolf Point. The brew­ery is tai­lored to cre­ate an envi­ron­ment that wel­comes peo­ple to do the same while drink­ing craft beer, a rar­ity in rural north­east­ern Mon­tana, he said.

John Gysler, a hardware and furniture store owner in Wolf Point, dips into a bowl of peanuts and chats with regulars at Missouri Breaks Brewing while brewery co-owner Mark Zilkoski checks his iPad. Every Sunday afternoon after mass, Zilkoski, also known as “Doc'Z,” and his band play for a few hours in the lounge before moving to the taproom to finish off the evening.Mon­tana has had a surge in brew­eries open­ing across the state in the past few years. The state ranked third in the num­ber of brew­eries per capita in 2012, with 36, accord­ing to the Amer­i­can Home­brew­ers Association.

The major­ity of Mon­tana brew­eries are in the west­ern half, pri­mar­ily in larger cities. But brew­eries are increas­ingly tar­get­ing rural areas, said Tony Her­bert, Mon­tana Brew­ers Asso­ci­a­tion exec­u­tive director.

A brew­ery can pro­vide jobs, new eco­nomic stim­uli via tourism and change the cul­ture of the area. Even under­priv­i­leged areas can ben­e­fit from a brew­ery, he said.

The pop­u­la­tions may not be big, but a brew­ery is a new busi­ness down the street, and most peo­ple like to sup­port these brew­eries,” Her­bert said.

Rox­anne Gourneau, a tribal coun­cil­woman, said 10 years ago the com­mu­nity and tribes would have never allowed Mis­souri Breaks Brew­ing to open because of the over­abun­dance of bars on the reservation.

There used to be more bars and beauty salons than places to buy gro­ceries in this town,” Gourneau said.

PEOPLE HAVE come to accept bars and liquor stores, so a brew­ery isn’t much dif­fer­ent from what they already had, Sansaver said.

Cer­tainly peo­ple have to make deci­sions when they par­take in alco­hol con­sump­tion, includ­ing the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of drink­ing and dri­ving,” Sansaver said. “We’re not mak­ing excuses that we opened an estab­lish­ment on the reser­va­tion, in light of the prob­lems that brings with it. But we’re adults, and adults can make those deci­sions and han­dle them­selves prop­erly and responsibly.”

His­tor­i­cally, fed­eral law pro­hib­ited the sale or exchange of alco­hol in Indian Coun­try. But Con­gress in 1948 exempted from that law non-tribally owned lands in “non-Indian com­mu­ni­ties” on reser­va­tions, like Wolf Point and Poplar. The courts have con­sid­ered a num­ber of fac­tors when deter­min­ing whether a com­mu­nity is non-Indian, includ­ing racial com­po­si­tion of the pop­u­la­tion and the use of ser­vices in the area by tribal members.

In 1953, fed­eral leg­is­la­tion gave tribes the abil­ity to reg­u­late liquor sales on reser­va­tions. Maylinn Smith, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of law at the Uni­ver­sity of Mon­tana, said these reg­u­la­tions are con­vo­luted in that they may give tribes only cer­tain author­ity over the sale of alco­hol on reservations.

Ryan White Horse takes a nap during his friend Melvin Martell’s 2 p.m. pool game at Arlo’s Bar in Wolf Point.Although tribes can com­pletely ban alco­hol on reser­va­tions, includ­ing non-Indian com­mu­ni­ties, the courts have not decided whether tribes that allow alco­hol can reg­u­late its sale in non-Indian com­mu­ni­ties, Smith said.

Many reser­va­tions across the nation are strictly dry reser­va­tions, but some are start­ing to relax those laws to pro­mote new busi­ness. Many tribal com­mu­ni­ties are fight­ing against these changes.

On the Pine Ridge Reser­va­tion in South Dakota, the Oglala Sioux Tribe legal­ized alco­hol sales in a 2013 bal­lot ref­er­en­dum. The issue was met with mass protests, includ­ing an inci­dent in which the tribe’s pres­i­dent was arrested for attempt­ing to block a truck from deliv­er­ing beer to a bor­der­town pack­age liquor store. Although vot­ers approved the ref­er­en­dum, the tribal coun­cil has yet to rat­ify the pol­icy, which is cur­rently held in legal red tape.

But alco­hol sales have been decreas­ing in bor­der towns around Pine Ridge in recent years. The city of White­clay, Nebraska has seen a drop in beer sales at non-bar estab­lish­ments — from 465,000 gal­lons of beer in 2010, to 336,000 in 2013 — accord­ing to the Nebraska Liquor Con­trol Commission.

The Fort Peck tribes have never enacted an ordi­nance to per­mit, ban or reg­u­late the sale of liquor on the reser­va­tion. But many tribal mem­bers have been push­ing to make the reser­va­tion totally dry, Gourneau said.

But Gourneau said that would prob­a­bly cause more prob­lems for the reser­va­tion, like drunk dri­ving and ille­gal alco­hol sales.

Instead, the com­mu­nity and tribes have worked hard to pro­mote aware­ness about the effects of alco­hol, and to pre­vent alcohol-related acci­dents through increased police inter­ven­tion, Gourneau said.

Through­out the last decade, Fort Peck has seen fluc­tu­at­ing trends in its alco­hol sales and related incidents.

Since 2003, the num­ber of DUIs processed by the Fort Peck Tribal Judi­cial Ser­vices steadily increased by 41 per­cent to 470 in 2013. In 2003, pros­e­cu­tors filed 333 cases.

Even at capacity, the calm atmosphere of Missouri Breaks Brewing challenges the drinking culture on a reservation troubled by alcoholism and an unemployment rate hovering around 50 percent. The Sansaver and Zilkoski families use the brewery as an extension of their living room: Meals, jam sessions, meetings, afternoon naps for the grandkids and reunions for old friends all take place in a home masquerading as a pub.Mean­while, reser­va­tion stores have seen a decrease in alco­hol sales. In 2010, Nemont Bev­er­age Cor­po­ra­tion, which dis­trib­utes beer to 25 estab­lish­ments on the reser­va­tion, sold the equiv­a­lent of about 9,172 cans of beer through­out Fort Peck. In 2013, the com­pany sold just over 7,713 cans of beer.

But Ricker, an employee of the Spot­ted Bull Recov­ery Resource Cen­ter, said part of the rea­son for the drop in beer sales is a change in sub­stance use on Fort Peck. Alco­hol isn’t the main sub­stance of choice for the cur­rent 20–30 year olds, she said.

The alco­hol prob­lem has always been an issue that we deal with, but more and more what we’re see­ing is the co-occurring, where you have the alco­hol and the pre­scrip­tion drugs and the meth, but alco­hol is still the com­mon denom­i­na­tor,” Ricker said.

Alco­hol con­sump­tion is ingrained in the reservation’s cul­ture, she said. It will take gen­er­a­tions to change this. It can be done, but it’s going to have to hap­pen not only at the bars, but also with the tribes and in fam­ily circles.

Ricker said Mis­souri Breaks Brew­ing could help change the face of drink­ing on the reser­va­tion by chang­ing the social stigma of what it means to drink and how peo­ple learn to drink. But the brew­ery is still a rel­a­tively new estab­lish­ment, and it will take gen­er­a­tions to deter­mine if the pub will impact how tribal mem­bers drink, she said.

LEANING AGAINST the red pan­eled exte­rior of Arlo’s Bar, Peggy Martell, 39, and her friends share a cig­a­rette. It’s 1 p.m. on a Sat­ur­day, and the group is try­ing to get together enough money to buy a fifth of vodka at the liquor store next door.

Hey, we’ve got like $3, do you have a cou­ple, its only like $12,” one of the men says to Peggy.

Dig­ging in her pocket, she pulls out a crum­pled $10 bill and shoves it into the man’s hand.

Make sure I get a cou­ple shots of that,” she says as the man turns to the liquor store.

Peggy and her friends have been to Mis­souri Breaks Brew­ing a cou­ple of times, but it’s not really their type of hang out. They’ve been reg­u­lars at Arlo’s and the Water Hole bar for years.

The beer is really good (at the brew­ery), they’ve got some really funny names for the beer,” Martell said. “But you can only get four drinks and stay for a few hours, because they don’t want it to turn into the Water Hole.”

Marcus Moran, his girlfriend, Jocelyn Peters, and their friend Shanna Hopson share a drink on a Friday evening at the Missouri Breaks Brewing. “When I think about Native Americans, I know that for every one that’s standing around out on the street, there’s another one out there working, just living like everybody else,” Moran said.Martell said lim­it­ing hours and high-priced drinks are a big rea­son she and her friends don’t go to the brew­ery. She said the brew­ery feels like more of an estab­lish­ment for the elite peo­ple in the community.

It’s so expen­sive and you just feel like you can’t go in because of that,” Martell said. “Some peo­ple walk in, and you just feel a bit judged.”

As is the trend with micro­brew­eries, Mis­souri Breaks Brew­ing tends to attract a cer­tain type of crowd, said Don Tom­sic, owner of Stock­mans 220 Club, just down the street from the brewery.

Arlo’s and the Water Hole tend to attract the lower income crowd, while Stock­mans and Dad’s Bar get an even mix. The Elks Club gets more of the middle-income crowd, and the brew­ery attracts the mid­dle– to upper-income crowd, Tom­sic said.

The brew­ery has been a great addi­tion to the town, despite adding another drink­ing estab­lish­ment, Tom­sic said. The com­mu­nity, espe­cially other bars and busi­nesses, really had no ani­mos­ity toward it open­ing because Sansaver and Zilkoski were the ones in charge. The two have been res­i­dents for decades, and are as much a part of the com­mu­nity as any­one else. They under­stood the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of what they were doing, he said.

If any­one else would have done it, there would have been back­lash for sure,” Tom­sic said. “But with it being them, it was wel­comed. I like it because it has lim­ited hours and drink lim­its, because it is stronger brews.”

State law lim­its every brew­ery patron to four beers a night, and restricts hours of oper­a­tion if the brew­ery is only a tast­ing room. Mis­souri Breaks is open from 4–8 p.m., Mon­day through Fri­day, and 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Saturday.The tranquil atmosphere of Missouri Breaks Brewing challenges the drinking culture on a reservation troubled by alcoholism and an unemployment rate hovering around 50 percent.  The Sansaver and Zilkoski families use the brewery as an extension of their living room: Meals, jam sessions, meetings, afternoon naps for the grandkids and reunions for old friends all take place in a home masquerading as a pub.

Those lim­i­ta­tions make it eas­ier for Tomsic’s bar­tenders to respon­si­bly serve their cus­tomers, because it’s eas­ier to make the judge­ment to cut some­one off based on numeric lim­its rather than observed lim­its. It’s harder to know someone’s intox­i­ca­tion level when they come from Arlo’s or the Water Hole; it’s those sit­u­a­tions that can lead to fights, injuries and acci­dents, Tom­sic said.

The state’s lim­i­ta­tions on brew­eries helped Sansaver and Zilkoski solid­ify their belief that a brew­ery could be pos­si­ble on the reservation.

The brew­ery would also be small enough that it wouldn’t be able to pro­duce a lot of beer, lim­it­ing its pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion into the com­mu­nity. They believed the brew­ery wouldn’t turn into one of the reg­u­lar bars just a few blocks away, because of the regulations.

We said, ‘Let’s just see how it goes, if it’s an issue, if it’s some­thing that’s going to be harm­ful to the com­mu­nity, in that peo­ple are com­ing in, con­sum­ing and going out and being irre­spon­si­ble, we will close it down the next day,’” Sansaver said. “But, by and large, if they’re going to do it, they’d do it with­out us being open anyway.”

BY 7 P.M., there was hardly any room to move, let alone get into the packed brew­ery. The tables were full, and the bar was jammed with cus­tomers try­ing to get the bartender’s attention.

Jeff and Julie Neubauer, res­i­dents of Wolf Point, wanted to get their two growlers filled for the week­end. So the cou­ple squeezed their way up the bar, glass jugs in tow.

Rattlesnake IPA foam tops off a glass growler at the Missouri Breaks Brewing on a Friday afternoon in March. Missouri Breaks brews six beers year-round and tacks on a seasonal specialty every few months. Growlers cost $20 and are $8 to fill, pints cost $4 and all customers are limited to four pints per day during the pub’s limited taproom hours of 4-8 p.m.The two finally found an open spot between two cus­tomers. The sole bar­tender, Alonna Sansaver, hus­tled down the length of the bar, fran­ti­cally tak­ing and fill­ing orders. Her uncle, Mark Sansaver, had already left for the night, but Zilkoski was still there.

Can we get three Big Beavers?” a cus­tomer shouts.

I need some too,” another one says.

Begin­ning to fill the first of the glasses, Alonna Sansaver takes the time to catch her breath and look around. Jeff and Julie are stand­ing just across the bar, growlers on the counter, ready to be filled.

Alonna Sansaver men­tally jots down the Neubauers’ order: Fill both growlers with Big Beaver Belchin’ Ale, $20, two pints of Big Beaver, $8, and start a tab.

Foam begins to sput­ters out at Alonna Sansaver from the tap. In just one after­noon, the brew­ery had gone through an entire keg of Big Beaver.

Open­ing up the refrig­er­ated cooler under the tap, she grabbed the empty 15.5 gal­lon keg and shuf­fled with it to the brew room in the back of the pub. She wheeled another keg back through the wait­ing crowd of peo­ple, eager to get one last beer before clos­ing time.

Can I get one of those?” a cus­tomer asks.

Me too,” another one says, as she hooked the keg up to the tap.

Alonna Sansaver grabbed some fresh glasses and began pour­ing more Big Beaver.

Sips and nods of approval from the cus­tomers, and she began pick­ing up pay­ment, deposit­ing it in the cash reg­is­ter. Look­ing at her tally sheet, she saw one of the cus­tomers had his fourth beer and was done for the night. But it’s now 8 p.m., clos­ing time, so it won’t matter.

Last call,” Alonna Sansaver shouted out to the crowd milling about already putting on their coats. They were already aware of the time.

Some were headed home, oth­ers down the street to the Elks, Arlo’s and Dad’s to con­tinue the night. A few had been there for hours, but most just came for a drink or two with friends before going elsewhere.

The brew­ery is a start­ing place for a lot of peo­ple, said Mark Sansaver. But it’s also a social estab­lish­ment. The brew­ery isn’t there to be a bea­con of social respon­si­bil­ity for the com­mu­nity. It’s there as an out­let for peo­ple to enjoy a cou­ple qual­ity brews.