Chehalis Tribe Overcomes Jacksonian Prohibition & 2020 to Open Distillery

A block away from an I-5 offramp between Olympia and the town of Chehalis, a brew pub and distillery has opened. What makes it newsworthy is that it’s the first legal distillery on a Native American reservation, opened on land which is part of the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation. 

It wasn’t easy. Besides all the usual difficulties which arise when a Native tribe tries to develop a business to raise the standard of living on a reservation, they also had to contend with COVID-19, wildfires, and the racism of Andrew Jackson. 

In 2015, Chehalis leaders were discussing options for new businesses which would attract people to their planned hotel and restaurant on their reservation in southwestern Washington. Their original domain reached from the Cascades to the Pacific, from what is now the Olympic National Park almost to the Columbia, but in the 19th Century they were forced onto a single reservation inside the Chehalis River watershed, which was reduced and reduced again by acts of Congress until it was just 4,438 acres. In that confined area, the 800 enrolled members of the Confederated Tribes had to struggle to find a way to provide employment for themselves and tax revenue for their government. In an interview with OPB, Chairman Harry Pickernell said, “We thought, why not a distillery?” 

They began plans to open a distillery in partnership with Heritage Distilling company of Gig Harbor. Seeking a license to operate, they ran into an unexpected barrier: a law signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1834 which banned the production of liquor in “Indian Country” intending to “preserve peace on the frontier.” Hardly the worst thing Jackson ever did to Native Americans, considering another of his initiatives became known as “the Trail of Tears,” but to be blocked by Jackson in 2017 was something of a surprise.  

Rather than give up, the tribe began lobbying for a change to the law. Republican U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Battle Ground sponsored the House bill, which was sent to the White House in December 2018. Donald Trump, although often an outspoken defender of Jackson, signed it. 

The repeal of the Jacksonian law was not the end of Talking Cedars’ troubles. The delay while waiting to changes to the law led to construction not beginning until the U.S. was engaged in a trade war with China, which made the needed steel much more expensive. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which slowed work but not so much that the distillery couldn’t use its equipment to manufacture hand sanitizer while preparing to begin producing whiskey. 

Looking back on what the job had taken, David Burnett, CEO of Chehalis Tribal Enterprises, told OPB, “I’m not sure I could create a more challenging set of circumstances to open a new business.” 

Recently, Burnett stood before gleaming copper stills and immense stainless steel tanks, telling a tour group, “This is a very large facility. I don’t think this is going to end up being the second wave of casinos.” Liquor production is expected to begin in the new year, after the arrival of a few remaining specialty parts from Italy. 

Washington state lands commissioner Hilary Franz toured the facility, and said that 2020 had inspired her to look beyond her customary fondness for wine: “COVID hit. Wildfire season hit. And I will be honest, I’ve discovered whiskey. It’s not bad. It’s pretty good,” she told OPB. 

“Our tribal communities have been working hard throughout this state and this nation to help take care of their communities and they frankly had their hands tied behind their back in a very racist way that did not allow them to do what we have been able to do,” Franz said. “This is a win across the board.” 

Some people expressed concern about producing whiskey on reservation land, noting that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and other health researchers have confirmed the truth in old traditions about “whiskey Indians”: Native Americans really do have a higher rate of death attributed to alcohol than people of other races. 

“My assurance to them was that this is not to bring alcohol on the reservation, but just a means to diversify our economic ventures – throughout not just the reservation, but nationwide and internationally, hopefully,” Pickernell said. 

On that subject, it’s worth noting that none of the central figures in the liquor enterprise drink alcohol themselves. 

Other tribes are interested in opening distilleries. Burnett told OPB, “Any way that a tribe might have an interest in this, we are ready and able to talk to them about that.” 

Although the idea of a whiskey called “Wildfire” has been suggested, in honor of the disastrous conditions under which the distillery opened, the Chehalis have no plans to manufacture “firewater,” which is just as well. The “whiskey” sold by unscrupulous merchants to Native tribes in the past was made from industrial alcohol, water, tobacco, soap, and strychnine.  

By John M. Burt