Thursday, June 19, 2008

$4 Gas Limits Lifestyles on Rural Reservations

High Gas Prices Squeeze Rural Reservations

Clockwise from upper left, map shows June 17 prices of unleaded regular gas on the Nez Perce, Blackfeet, Northern Cheyenne, Menominee, Navajo and Tohono O'odham reservations.American Indian Journalism Institute

$4 Gas Limits Lifestyles on Rural Reservations

VERMILLION, S.D.—Rural Native American communities are tackling declining tourism and unstable business that come with the increased cost of fuel.

Travel and excess spending are no longer luxuries many can afford.

People on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana are asking, "Am I going to eat or put gas in my car?" said Kathy Halloran, the district manager of the Town Pump in Browning there. "It breaks my heart."

Browning is near one entrance to Glacier National Park. Every summer, tourists visit to see wildlife, jagged mountains and glaciers.

"We've certainly seen a decline in tourism," Halloran said. "There's a definite decrease in sales."

The least expensive gasoline in Browning on June 17 was $4.01. Less than a week before, it was $3.98 and at the time, Halloran was not expecting the price to jump beyond $4 for another two weeks.

The national average price of fuel as of June 17 is $4.08, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. That is up almost $2 since February 2007, when it was $2.17.

A sampling of recent fuel prices on Indian reservations showed that the cost of fuel is lower than the national average. Fuel was highest on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana where unleaded gas was $4.24 per gallon. The least expensive for unleaded was on the Tohono O'odham reservation in Arizona at $3.89 per gallon.

For some tribes, the lower prices depend on variations in how fuel is taxed on reservations.

The Blackfeet tribe does not tax fuel. "Our tribe has some kind of pact with the state," said Monte Hammons, assistant manager of Town Pump.

Richard Sanders, business manager of the Cheyenne Depot on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, said the Northern Cheyenne tribe does tax fuel. "You pay tax upfront. After two years, we receive that tax in a rebate form," Sanders said.

The tribe collects the tax, then disburses it two years later, said Sanders. "They divide it up and give it out which I don't agree with," Sanders said.

Regardless of taxes, traveling from remote reservation towns to major cities to buy custom goods is no longer frugal for people battling gas prices. More people are staying home and buying food locally rather than driving great distances, Halloran said.

"They can't drive 100 miles to shop at a big store," she said.

Julie Litzin manages the Conoco gas station in Navajo, N.M., located on the Navajo reservation. Litzin describes traffic as a rollercoaster, going up and down.

"I still think people are traveling," Litzin said. "But people talk about staying home."

Sanders, from Northern Cheyenne, has received complaints from customers about the increase in the price of fuel. "They think it's our fault," Sanders said.

Litzin, of the Navajo reservation, also faces unhappy customers. "I don't have any control over it (gas prices)," Litzin said she tells them.

The difference between needs and wants may be the deciding factor whether some people stay home or travel, Sanders said.

"People are gassing up less. I think it comes down to necessity," Sanders said.

Said Halloran, "It's a huge impact on Native Americans ... and that's the power of companies."

[EDITORS' NOTE: This story was written as a class assignment at the American Indian Journalism Institute and originally published on AIJI: Freedom Forum Diversity Institute. It is used with permission.]

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