Bethel, Alaska has been called “a bootleggers paradise.” Surrounded by 56 small villages with varying degrees of prohibition, my home base of 6,000 people has no limits on importing alcohol. People can and do buy cases of liquor have it delivered to the airport. Once in the regional hub, it travels by snowmobile, boat, and plance across millions of acres of low tundra, rivers, and mountains to customers in places that have banned it.
I recently completed a fellowship with the Alaska Press Club for KYUK which asked Alaskan journalists to tell the story of alcohol by digging into the data beneath the state’s alcohol reality and the stories it reveals. I chose to focus on bootlegging: the illegal movement of liquor to the dozens of villages in remote Alaska that have voted to ban the importation, sale, or possession of alcohol.
The villages are traditional Alaska Native communities in which a cash-subsistence economy dominates. There are few jobs and people work together to catch fish, hunt moose, and live life in one of the most challenging environments in the world.
The economics of illegal alcohol are staggering. People in Bethel can buy alcohol from Anchorage via air carrier, or by bringing it back in their luggage. There are no local stores now (although that may change over the next several months.)
While the 56 villages surrounding Bethel are indeed isolated, they’re simultaneously very connected to the Bethel. With the Kuskokwim river freezes in the winter, the river turns into a literal ice highway.
Trucks, snowmobiles, and ATV’s make the trip hundreds of miles from village to Bethel and back. During the summer, a fleet of 16′ Lund skiffs run people to medical appointments, groceries to villages, and inevitably, thousands of bottles of booze. Several airlines fly multiple trips from Bethel daily. With no limits on importing alcohol to the hub Bethel, a highly sophisticated illicit market has taken hold. What was a $10 plastic jug of R&R blended whiskey in Anchorage becomes a $300 item in remote coastal villages.The further from Bethel, the more expensive the bottle.
Life is tough in the YK Delta. Be it from alcohol, economics, historical trauma, or otherwise, the standard of life suffers in southwest Alaska. One in two women have experienced sexual or partner violence. Crime is inextricably linked with alcohol. Suicide rates are astronomical. The king salmon that define a large part of the identity of Yup’ik people have been in decline for years. My challenge was to tell that story. With data.