TUCSON - Wanda MacDonald measures the miles between Tuba City, on the Navajo Indian Reservation, and Flagstaff, a bit more than 70 miles to the south, not by mileage markers but white crosses along the highway.
Several years ago, she counted 149 along the 72-mile route. The crosses mark the site of fatal accidents - most caused by alcohol consumption - with most of the victims native Americans.
It's but one manifestation of perhaps the biggest social issue facing the Navajo Nation and many other Indian tribes in Arizona and nationwide - endemic problems with alcohol use and abuse.
Some sobering facts:
- The number of DUI cases on the Navajo Reservation ranged from 8,195 in 2004 to 8,584 in 2005 and 7,776 last year.
- In June 2006, a police officer fatally shot a 21-year-old Navajo man who had been drinking and allegedly beating his girlfriend in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Farmington, N.M.
Some tribal members will drive upward of 70 miles to bars, taverns and liquor stores that serve as magnets in off-reservation communities like Flagstaff, Farmington, Gallup, N.M., or even tiny Sanders, along Interstate 40 in northeastern Arizona, for binge-drinking.
Chronic alcoholics, meanwhile, know and frequent some of the worst-kept secrets on the reservation - bootleggers - who flout the Navajo Nation's no-drinking, no-possession, no-sales bans only too eagerly. They haul cases of contraband beer, wine and cheap booze in their trucks, vans and cars to sell at highly inflated prices.
An estimated 220,000 people live on the Navajo reservation, the nation's largest - sprawling across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Tribal Police Chief Jim Benally estimates that 80 percent of the adult population - more than 70,000 people - have an alcohol problem, while about two-thirds of some 130,000 youths on the reservation are using alcohol.
"People go both on and off the reservation to binge drink," Benally said. "Since liquor is illegal, a lot of people go to towns off the reservation and binge drink; they try to down as much as possible."
"You can't purchase alcohol legally, but bootleggers thrive," said George Hardeen, a spokesman for Navajo tribal president Joe Shirley Jr. Alcohol, he said, "probably costs the (Navajo) nation millions of dollars as a result of drinking problems."
MacDonald, program supervisor and director of the Navajo outpatient behavioral treatment center at Tuba City, said binge drinking is one of the key issues she and other behavioral health workers have to deal with.
"We have some alcoholics who drink constantly and some who drink just when they have gone off the reservation," she said. "One of our biggest problems is the outlets just off the reservation boundary. It's obvious why they are established: they just want the Navajo money."
She called Gallup "the hub of the universe to an alcoholic. The border towns have just been the source of the binge drinking."
Deborah Reeves, clinical supervisor at New Lands, another tribal behavioral treatment center in Chambers, Ariz., along Interstate 40 near New Mexico, said there are three liquor stores and a night club just off the reservation in the area, all frequented by tribal members.
"I guess you wouldn't call them binge drinkers any more. We have chronic alcoholic drinking, day in and day out."
Reeves and MacDonald said there are no detoxification centers anywhere on the reservation, though an old Indian Health Services hospital at Shiprock, N.M., is being converted into one.
A detox facility called the Guidance Center is about to open in Flagstaff because the emergency department at Flagstaff Medical Center frequently being inundated with chronic alcoholics, particularly in cold weather.