Young Seneca Indians, emotionally bruised and frightened by the killing and maiming of their relatives and friends caused by alcohol abuse, have launched a battle for an alcohol-free reservation.
"We cannot replenish our supply of people like others can," said Teresa Bradskey, Seneca youth coordinator. "More Irish, for example, can come over from Ireland, but we can't make replacement Native Americans when we are losing our potential parents."
The Senecas are the first tribe in the state and possibly the nation to hire a full-time youth services coordinator and establish a department to support youth programs.
In January, five young people were involved in an alcohol-related auto accident on the Cattaraugus Reservation.
"My cousin was in that car," said 13-year-old Julie Schindler. "One of the boys in the car died. Another one is in a wheelchair. They won't be playing lacrosse anymore."
Over the last 20 years, there were 67 deaths on the Seneca reservations attributed to alcohol-related causes. About 2,000 Senecas live on the tribal lands.
A 30-year study of Senecas, living on and off the reservation -- about 6,000 in all -- concluded that almost 10,000 years of potential life was lost because of the "premature and often preventable deaths" of 474 Senecas during that time.
The Seneca Nation of Indians' tribal law forbids the sale of alcohol on the Cattaraugus and Allegany reservations but teen-agers say there are speakeasies and "private clubs" where beer is readily available with no questions asked.
Cheryl Garlow, a youth advocate, blames the on-reservation sale of tax-free cigarettes.
"Stores started popping up and pretty soon, those people saw they could also sell beer along with the cigarettes. They sold to anybody and we kept hearing about kids getting drunk. It was distressing and discouraging to us."
Recently, several of the teen-agers formed the Youth Concerns Core Committee and, supported by concerned parents, it is pressuring the Tribal Council to enforce the prohibition laws.
At the same time, the committee seeks to promote alternative programs for young people. These include teen nights, peer counseling, role playing and recreational programs that focus on overall health and self-esteem.
"It is a problem," Seneca president Dennis Lay acknowledged, "and it is going to be a problem until the general public wants to deal with it head on."
"We remember, too well, that is how the white man got our land away from us by getting our ancestors drunk," he said.
Seneca Police Chief Peter Maybee readily admits the situation.
"Alcohol is a problem," he said, "but so is community support. People will not sign complaints against the places and people they accuse of selling beer. . . . Parents complain about their kids being able to buy beer and then we find out that while the kids were buying it illegally, their parents were out drinking."
Community pressure already has paid off with Ms. Bradskey's hiring several months ago.
"To the Indian, these are personal family issues and someone outside the family is very reluctant to interfere," Ms. Bradskey said. "What the nation is doing with the creation of a full-time Youth Department and support of the young people's efforts is an open declaration of war against alcoholism. That's a pretty incredible statement from the Tribal Council."
Julie, a seventh-grader from the Cattaraugus Reservation, is one of the teen-agers lobbying the Tribal Council to stop the illegal sales.
"Right down the road from where I live," she said, "it's like a speakeasy. They have a band. You go in and if you aren't old enough, you have someone else buy the beer for you. I have a lot of friends that drink there all the time."
On the Allegany Reservation, "they have 'private parties,' " said Heath W. Garlow, 17. "They charge you a $5 initiation fee to join the club and anyone can join no matter how young you are. Then they have a $5 admittance fee when they have a party and you buy your own beer when you are in there."
David Snow, 18, must deal with the problem in his home. He said he is trying to get his mother to stop drinking. "Living with it, you see a lot of bad stuff and I don't want to live that way," he said.
In one of their first presentations to the Tribal Council in late April, the young people charted the loss of more than 2,000 years of potential life over the past 25 years because of alcohol-related deaths:
37 killed in auto accidents.
Five struck and killed by a train.
Four fire deaths.
One killed in a fall.
One death from cirrhosis.
"But those figures are only the tip of the iceberg," Ms. Bradskey insists. "Too often, they don't put on the death certificates that alcohol was involved in the actual cause of death."
She referred specifically to the 30-year report, which was done by Roswell Park Memorial Institute with the Seneca Nation and completed in the fall of 1988.
"The report tells that more than half of the 474 deaths were attributable to accident and injury," she said. "Substance abuse is often cited as a direct contributing factor for accidental death.
Dr. Barry Willer of the University at Buffalo has done extensive research of chemical dependency among Native Americans.
"The U.S. Congress has recognized that 'nothing is more costly to Indian people than the consequences of alcohol and substance abuse,' " he said.
In one of the most recent reports to Congress, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that "the rate of alcohol-related illness and injury among American Indians is three times the rate for the general population. . . . Homicide and suicide rates are double that of the general population. . . . Liver cirrhosis is the fourth-ranked cause of death among the American Indians."
Congress passed legislation prohibiting the sale of liquor to Indians in 1832, but the law was repealed in 1953. Although federal law prohibits the sale of liquor on reservations, it does provide that individual tribes may approve their own laws permitting sale.
Lay made his policy clear:
"We will never legalize alcohol on the reservation during my administration. It has been tried on other reservations and it didn't solve anything.
"Unfortunately, we have organizations, like the fire department and the American Legion, who raise money by selling beer at their fund-raising activities. The nation will have to do something to help them financially to make up for these fund-raisers if we insist that they can't hold them anymore."
Midge Dean-Stock, who was one of the original adult supporters of the youth movement, doesn't argue that "there are problems to enforce the law but it must happen."
"The outcry against what is happening to us came from the young people themselves," she said. "They came and told us that the pressures were very great and they didn't want to succumb. They wanted our help."
"It is our role to watch out for the seven generations to come so we have an obligation to help."
How many deaths?
According to a tribal youth group, the following deaths of Seneca Indians over the past 25 years have been alcohol related:
37 auto-accident deaths.
5 killed by a train.
4 fire deaths.
1 died in a fall.
Is that accurate?
The actual figure is far higher, some say, because alcohol use often isn't included on death certificates as a contributing factor.