Red Lake tribal leaders fighting Roger's Resort over liquor license

It's illegal to sell or possess alcohol on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, but anyone who drive a few miles down the road will find liquor readily available.

In a sparsely populated area of northern forest, a handful of liquor stores are located within a mile or two of Minnesota's only dry reservation.

Liquor sales have long been a source of tension along its border, but Chris Freudenberg didn't know that. A few weeks ago he asked the Beltrami County Board for a liquor license, hoping to sell cases of beer and harder stuff out of Roger's Resort, which he owns.

The Sheriff's Department cleared his background check. Locals were supportive. He was hopeful. Then, at an Aug. 19 public hearing, representatives from the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe arrived to lobby against his requested license.

"It seemed to come out of the blue," Freudenberg said.

Actually, it wasn't out of the blue at all. Two years ago, before Darrell Seki won the band chairmanship from Floyd Jourdain, the tribal council became exasperated with the handful of liquor stores just outside the reservation border. Those stores serve tribal members, a population plagued by alcoholism, Jourdain said.

At the time, Tribal Council member Gary Nelson proposed a resolution officially opposing the establishment of liquor stores "adjacent" to the reservation. The council passed the resolution, but it sat dormant until Freudenberg applied for a liquor license.

Roger's Resort is just six miles from the edge of the Red Lake Reservation.

At the public hearing, Nelson asked Beltrami County commissioners to establish a buffer zone around the reservation in which no liquor licenses would be granted. Nelson could not be reached for comment.

The commissioners postponed their vote on whether to grant Freudenberg the license and are set to meet again Sept. 2. Meanwhile, weeks after the initial protest, Freudenberg is still confused.

He already sells 3.2 percent beer, the less-regulated cousin of what he hopes to sell soon. And his primary customer base is meant to be his guests, not nearby tribal members.

In fact, the reason he wants the liquor license isn't really about selling liquor.

Freudenberg bought Roger's earlier this year with a few partners. In the process, his liability insurance broker said the resort would have lower premiums if he had a liquor license and could sell it to prevent customers from driving drunk to another store.

When anglers run out of beer and don't want the 3.2 variety they head to the nearest liquor store, making Freudenberg partially liable for any accidents they might cause. Creating a more full service liquor store narrows the radius of his liability and lowers the cost of insurance.

"Even if I don't sell any liquor," he said, "it'll be worth it for the insurance savings."

There are already plenty of liquor stores within driving distance of the reservation. Gillman's Liquor is just a mile or two south of the border, and Clearbrook Liquor a few miles beyond that. There are a few others scattered around the fringes but Roger's Resort would be the only establishment bordering the northeast corner of the reservation.

Jourdain said that would put a substantial number of tribal members closer than ever to a source of alcohol.

"Alcohol is the number one killer of Indians," he said. "And it continues to be the number one killer here in Red Lake."

As the vote approaches Beltrami County Chairman Jim Lucachick isn't sure if Freudenberg will get his license. He's not sure how he'll vote, but worries a buffer zone outside of the reservation might set an uneven precedent.

"There is no buffer zone within the sovereign nation. If somebody trespasses the sovereign line, it is a trespass," he said. "So a buffer outside [the reservation], I feel that's a one way street."

Whatever happens, it's likely to be final. According to Frank Ball, Director to the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, local municipalities have total jurisdiction over liquor licenses. In this case, that's Beltrami County.

"Either side of this can jump up and down and shout all they want," he said, "They can sue, but courts just about always rule with the municipality."

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