Inland Northwest History and Culture  >  Indian-White Encounters  >  Spokane: 1877-1890

Spokane, Indians, and Alcohol in the late 1880s
                By Brad Northrup

The issue of alcohol and Indians has been a contentious one since Europeans first set foot in North America.  As white settlers migrated West during the 19th Century, the baggage that filled their wagons included an item of European origin that proved to be far more destructive than most realized.  Alcohol, in various forms, proved to be a destructive concoction once it was introduced to local Indians, and this pattern was not interrupted when white settlers established a community in the Spokane area.  More importantly, alcohol served as a catalyst for a negative public relations campaign against Spokane’s local Indian population.  White citizens blamed the Indians themselves for problems associated with alcohol consumption, rather than addressing the root cause.  Alcohol was essentially used as an excuse for white members of Spokane to ostracize the local Indians, with their ultimate goal being the removal of all Indians from the region.

The public’s alarm over the issue of Indians and alcohol was not without merit, however.  By the mid 1880s, there were numerous incidents that involved intoxicated Indians.   Individual Indians, both male and female, were being arrested for drunkenness on a daily basis.  Some were found enjoying the effects of whiskey in relative seclusion, such as in boxcars[1], whereas others were arrested after creating havoc with the local populace.[2]  In one instance, an intoxicated Indian was found singing on a downtown street.  Rather than lock him up, the responding officer “encouraged” the Indian to leave the vicinity with his pistol.[3]  Disturbingly, there were incidents that involved large, boisterous crowds of intoxicated Indians.  The revelers quickly dispersed upon the arrival of local law enforcement officers, but local inhabitants were often left “frightened out of their wits.”[4] 

Often the mere sight of a drunk Indian provoked public outrage.  As early as 1885, many citizens advocated the use of physical torture to halt the distribution of alcohol to Indians after an extremely intoxicated Indian on horseback made a grand tour through the streets of Spokane.[5]  Although no action was taken to promote such an idea, the incident illuminated the concern and outright anger that the white population had in terms of addressing the issue of drunken Indians.  To the citizens of Spokane, the classic picture of a drunk Indian slumped over his horse as he meandered through the streets was more antagonizing than reports of drunk, marauding Indians. 

Humor was often embedded in reports of drunken Indians as well.  In October of 1885, a group of intoxicated Indians attempted to rescue one of their comrades from the local jail by cutting through the jail door with an axe.  Not realizing the amount of noise generated from such an endeavor, the Indians were soon caught in the act by jail officers.  All of the participants in the attempted escape joined their friend behind bars.[6]  Equally humorous incidents occurred in relation to the acquisition of alcohol by Indians.    Faced with laws that attempted to restrict the distribution of liquor, Indians often had to resort to more resourceful means in order to imbibe.  After an Indian was found to be intoxicated on lemon extract, local law enforcement officials issued a warning to local businesses that “storekeepers should not sell Indians either extract of vanilla or lemon as they get drunk on both.[7]

The formula that perpetuated public concern did, on occasion, lack some of the more volatile elements.  In one incident, a drunk Indian engaged in hand to hand combat with another Indian and wound up breaking the arm of a female Indian who attempted to interfere.[8]  While such an incident happened beyond the view of the white populace, its occurrence did manage to find a way into the local press, much to the chagrin of the white population.  Conversely, alcohol was on occasion absent from distressing reports regarding aggressive Indians.  A local lawyer was relieved of his horse by a gang of marauding Indians while in transit from Lake Osyoos.  The Indians claimed that the horse had been stolen from them and demanded its return.  Alone, and faced with a large party of natives, the lawyer “made a virtue of necessity, turned over the four-legged property and journeyed afoot.  It was a cold day to be left in the wilderness, but a few miles of pedestrian exercise was much better than contributing a meal to the wolves, for the Indians evidently would have gone to extremes.”[9]

By the winter of 1887, with the number of reports of drunken Indians increasing to an unbearable level, the patience of Spokane’s white population reached the breaking point.  As long as the local Indians were allowed to move freely about the region, they would be tempted to over-indulge.  The solution to the problem was to forcibly remove all Indians from the proximity of Spokane and place them on reservations.  In late February of 1887, to the delight of local citizens, three Indian Commissioners arrived in Spokane to assess the condition of local Indians and carried with them the authority to assign the Spokane Tribe to the Colville, Coeur d’Alene, or Flathead reservations.  The populace of Spokane could not have been more pleased.  “Those who have been so long annoyed by the presence of the loafing, lazy Spokanes will hope that the commission will decide to put them on the last named reservation (Flathead), that being the farthest from this city.[10]  Alcohol, they claimed, was the real culprit in regards to poor Indian behavior, and removal from the city was the only real option in limiting Indian access to liquor.  “As long as they are allowed to loaf about the city they will have whiskey, and that peculiar fluid product of the ingenuity of the white man has even a more terrible effect upon the untutored savage than on the civilized being who does not know how to use it with moderation….It would be to the advantage of the Indian himself as well as to the town if he could be put on a reservation.[11]

While the problem of intoxicated Indians deeply angered and frustrated the white citizens of Spokane during the late 19th Century, the underlying problem was directly related to western expansion.  As Spokane grew in size and population, local Indians were seen as unwanted guests whose drunken escapades only served to diminish Spokane’s reputation.  In the minds of Spokane’s residents, the local Indians were essentially standing in the way of progress.  The city could not continue to enjoy further growth and prosperity as long as the Indians were allowed to do as they pleased, and removal was seen by most as the only possible solution to the problem.



[1] Spokane Falls Review, March 9, 1887, page 4

[2] Spokane Falls Review, March 4, 1887, page 4

[3] Spokane Falls Review, February 19, 1887, page 4

[4] Spokane Falls Review, March 13, 1887, page 4

[5] “ That Drunken Indian,” Spokane Evening Review, October 20, 1885, page 1

[6] “On Their Ears,” Spokane Evening Review, October 23, 1885, page 1

[7] Spokane Falls Review, February 1, 1887, page 4

[8] Spokane Falls Review, March 12, 1887, page 4

[9] Spokane Falls Review, February 18,1887, page 4

[10] “Indian Commission,”  Spokane Falls Review, February 25, 1887, page 1

[11] Spokane Falls Review, March 12, 1887, page 2