IN the 1970's, writer Joe McGinness described Barrow as "the
caboose of the world" - flush with new oil money, lubricated with
alcohol, and seething with racial tension and violence.
Two decades later, the struggle in the nation's northernmost
community and other Alaskan towns over restricting alcohol sales
and consumption provides a window on the challenge of limiting
personal freedoms while trying to correct social problems.
For the past several years in Barrow was "damp" - alcohol
consumption was allowed but sales were banned. This past year, the
town went "dry" - all alcoholic sales and consumption were
But in a close referendum vote that bitterly divided ethnic
groups, neighbors and families, the town reverted to "wet" status
The 910-834 vote to reopen alcoholic taps - yet unofficial as of
Friday - came over objections of the Inupiat Eskimo leaders in
Barrow, a city of 4,200, and the rest of the Minnesota-sized North
Slope borough, where all other villages are dry.
Benefits of the ban - won last year with a seven-vote margin -
were dramatic, according to city and borough statistics. Rates of
crime, accidents and worker absenteeism plunged in the city of
4,200, while residents' participation in wholesome community
"People are working. Kids are happier.... The older people in
the community are so much happier because they're not spending
their time being scared to death out of their own homes because of
family abuse," Molly Pederson, a borough assembly member and native
sobriety leader, said shortly before the election. "It's hard for
me to understand why anyone would want to go back to the old way."
To sobriety leaders, the fight in part was a defense of communal
Inupiat values against a liquid intruder that has brought legendary
woes to native Americans.
"Speaking for myself personally, I care about the health of my
community, the health of my family," Pederson said. "We see it as a
whole community, as a whole family, rather than just me for myself."
But to Tom Nicolos, a maintenance supervisor at a local airline,
any claimed benefits of the ban - which he disputes - did not
justify the sacrifice of individual rights.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with alcohol for me," he said.
"Anytime we give up any freedoms whatsoever, I'm against that."
Prohibition, he said, punishes "responsible drinkers" while
doing nothing specifically to cure the small percentage of abusers.
The transplanted Californian and 14-year Barrow resident has
fought the ban since it was imposed. …