Bettles winter road

This undated photo shows the Bettles winter road about halfway from the village to its access point along the Dalton Highway at Prospect. 

Several Interior Alaska villages have blocked off road access in an attempt to stop COVID-19 health mandate violators and drug dealers from entering their communities.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy implemented Health Mandates 11 and 12 on March 28, restricting all non-essential intrastate travel between communities in order to help stop the spread of the virus.

On April 24, the governor implemented Health Mandate 16 as part of his “Reopen Alaska Responsibly” plan. This mandate relaxes the earlier intrastate travel bans and allows members of the same household to travel between communities on the road system for any purpose, including recreational or sightseeing activities conducted within the mandate guidelines.

Several weeks ago, Dot Lake, Northway and Tanacross tribal leaders decided to erect blockades or checkpoints on the roads into their villages after they realized outsiders were ignoring the governor’s mandates and entering their communities. Those road closures remain in place.

Tanacross has a population of roughly 130 people and is located off the Alaska Highway on a village-owned road, about 13 miles west of Tok. Council leaders made sure they had a plan in place to allow emergency responders access before they blocked the road.

Tribal Chief Herbie Demit said most of the villagers agreed with the blockade but that there has been some criticism.

“We’ve had some problems, mostly with our own people because they don’t want to be locked in. And I can understand that,” Demit said. “You know, I was kind of hoping that being locked in with each other would bring everybody closer, and for some people it did. But people are all different. The ones who accepted it are OK and they’re happy.”

Some Interior villages, such as Dot Lake, have an ongoing problem with drug dealers entering their community. Demit said he doesn’t think the issue is as serious in Tanacross as it is in other villages, but drugs seem to be getting in somehow.

“We don’t let any outsiders in. I know the drug dealers aren’t coming in, but I can’t say for sure that the villagers aren’t bringing it in,” Demit said.

Demit said the primary reason the tribe chose to block its road was out of concern for its elders.

“For our people, they’re the keepers of our identity, and we’re still using their teachings. In our culture they’re very valuable to us.”

Demit said he doesn’t regret the decision to close the road.

“We may have upset a few people, but sometimes leadership is like that,” he said. “You can’t make everybody happy. You have to balance the options.”

Dot Lake, which is located on the Alaska Highway between Tok and Delta Junction, has two roads into the village, both of which are owned by the tribe and privately maintained. Since the health mandates were issued, one road is blocked and the other is staffed by community members whenever possible. As in Tanacross, emergency responders have full access whenever needed.

Tracy Charles-Smith, the president of the Dot Lake Village Council, said the security measures are necessary for the health and survival of their community.

“The Upper Tanana region has a high rate of meth use, and Dot Lake even more so,” Charles-Smith said. “We’ve had a lot of traffic, even after the governor issued his mandates. We occasionally have someone sneak in because my security runs from midnight to 4 a.m. or 5 a.m., but they have other jobs and need to get some rest.”

Charles-Smith said the village’s location on a major road makes it easy for drug dealers to ply their trade.

“They can just walk through the woods because we’re right on the highway. We chased them out and said ‘Don’t ever come here again,’ but we’ve noticed people from the village are meeting them outside the village and bringing it in.”

While many villages worry about people bringing in prohibited alcohol, Dot Lake’s drug problem is so severe that “we’re not even concerned about bootleggers,” according to Charles-Smith.

“We’re talking about meth, and it’s a totally different thing. They just don’t care. We’ve identified our high-risk population (of drug users) and they are not social distancing and generally don’t have good hygiene. They’re intermingling with numerous people and they’ll be the first to get COVID-19.”

The possibility that drug users might contract the virus and spread it inside the village is high, according to Charles-Smith.

“Let me just be straightforward. When you’re a meth addict, you’re not going to seek medical treatment. We’ve had numerous instances of people who need medical attention for other things, but they don’t because they’re meth addicts.”

Charles-Smith said Dot Lake’s meth problem is staggering.

“It’s a tough situation. When I joined the council in 2013, the rate of meth use by our resident tribal members was 33%. And last October it was close to 80%. This is just our village resident tribal members, because we have tribal members everywhere,” Charles-Smith said, noting that the winter population of the village is roughly 30 to 40 people.

For the beleaguered leaders and employees of the tribal council, the fight to keep their elders, children and other community members safe from drug dealers and health-mandate violators is a never-ending battle.

“We’re a small tribe and have limited employees, because they’re the only ones who can pass a drug test. We have two health aides, and most of the employees are working from home and trying to self-isolate. That leaves us in not a very good position.”

The tribal leader of Northway was not available for comment on this story.

Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.