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Mahnomen County: Where people drive hammered at twice the state average

Nearly a quarter of Mahnomen County residents have a DWI under their belt.

Nearly a quarter of Mahnomen County residents have a DWI under their belt.

Plunked in Minnesota’s northwest quadrant, Mahnomen County is a square swath of prairie within the White Earth Indian Reservation. The fields are full of cattle, but college degrees are scarce.

A four-hour drive removed from Minneapolis, the time might move a little slower. But perhaps a bit too often it’s passed with a drink.

According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Mahnomen County has the highest DWI rate in the state. Over 23 percent of the population has been pinched for booze cruising — more than double the statewide clip. County Commissioner Brad Athmann isn’t surprised about Mahnomen’s wet-behind-the-wheel distinction. The problem runs deeper than a few reckless Saturday nights.

“Unfortunately, we’re also the poorest county in the state,” he says. “We have a very high rate of poverty, drug use, alcohol use, which all kind of runs together.”

Poverty and the baggage that comes with it are common on reservations. White Earth is no different, the former county sheriff notes. Between January and March the tribe, whose turf spills into neighboring Becker and Clearwater counties, held a series of community forums to help shape its next 10-year plan. According to a report, the No. 1 issue was clear.

“Overwhelming, all community members expressed concerns about drug and alcohol abuse in the community,” the report states. “This was a top priority for everyone who attended.”

Some attendees questioned whether Oshki Manidoo, a White Earth-run treatment facility in Bemidji, was effective. Tribal officials could not be reached for comment. But Athmann says Mahnomen’s woes all trace back to employment.

“If we can produce more jobs and take people off of the welfare status and no-work status … drinking and drug use sometimes go along with that,” Athmann says, crediting the tribe with doing its part to boost the workforce. “If we can do something with employment of people in this county and reservation, you’ll see the DWI and alcohol issues go away within a number of years.”

Despite its state leader status, Mahnomen has seen its DWIs dip in recent years, mirroring a statewide trend. Last year 67 people were arrested for driving while liquored, down from 114 in 2008. More than half of those arrested last year were repeat offenders, with a baker’s dozen convicted for at least their fourth time.

“When you have that type of a rate of poverty and alcoholism, you’re going to have problems on the roadway as well as other problems within your community that it brings,” Athmann says.