Banishment, in the name of tradition




In 1994, two 17-year-old Tlingit boys robbed a young pizza delivery man in Everett, Washington, and beat him with a baseball bat for a bit of cash and a few slices of pepperoni pizza.

A Washington state judge was convinced by a Native American activist and possibly hustler named Rudy James to allow the boys to have the old-ways punishment of banishment for one year to an uninhabited island in Southeast Alaska with only a small stash of food and a few small tools.

And so the boys started their punishment, but the whole experiment fell apart quickly as they were soon seen in local towns of Klawock and Craig.

Eventually they ended up serving a stint of prison time, and they’ve both had several brushes with the law since the 1990s.

The victim? He came too close to death that day. He still has permanent hearing loss where the bat smashed him in the head.

“Never before had an American court allowed defendants to be punished by banishment. But a judge here in Snohomish County, north of Seattle, was assured that it was a traditional form of Tlingit justice, and it was hailed by some as a bold and innovative move in a criminal justice system gone awry,” reported the New York Times in 1994.

Many Southeast Alaska Tlingits looked askance at Rudy James’ claim that he was a Tlingit judge. He hadn’t even lived in Alaska for three decades, and they were embarrassed by the whole charade.

“Rudy James was just making this up as he went along,” Aaron Isaacs, of Klawock, was quoted as saying by the Times. “The biggest problem the native people have with this now is we are going to be held responsible for the promises of Rudy James.”


Banishment is a punishment fashion that appears to be making a rebound in Alaska. Earlier this week the Alaska Dispatch News reported about several villages exercising their right to banish a person.

Derek Adams was 19 when he set fire to a house in the Yukon River village of Nunam Iqua. He had been awaiting trial since then, and took a plea deal to criminally negligent homicide charges in a Bethel court. It’s all pretty much behind him now, except for the three dead people that died that day in August of 2013.

Meanwhile, the village of Nunam Iqua has banished Adams. Out of self-defense, Alakanuk, and Emmonak banished him too.

Now Adams out of prison and homeless, because he can’t go to any villages near his home of Nunam Iqua. He’s hanging around Bethel because that’s what is going to happen to people who are banished — they’ll end up in the  urban centers.

Tribal governments have spoken, and the State will have to decide if it will listen. Are State Troopers obliged to back up the banishment of a tribal government?

And why is this particular young man banished, but not the rapists in Nunam Iqua that have been reported on by CNN? A reporter spent time in the village and featured it as a place where every woman in town has reported as having been a victim of domestic or gender-based violence, rape, or other sex crimes. And a lot of the kids have been raped and beaten too. The ADN story leaves open the question about whether Derek Adams was also abused in the village from which he is now banished.


Walter Olson was a retired professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska at Juneau. Married to Marie Olson until his death last December, he was the foremost expert on Tlingit culture, and history.

He told New York Times reporter Tim Egan that there was neither oral nor written history of any banishment tradition among any Alaska tribes. Not a single one, he said.

“Under old Tlingit law, you could turn someone over to be a slave, or take their life. But banishment — no.” – Wally Olsen

Today, banishment is being revived as a form of tribal sovereignty and “traditional justice.”

Few if any in the legal community are making critical inquiries as to which tribes practiced it or if any did at all.

It sounds good. It sounds traditional. And for those who just don’t feel like mixing it up with a tribal government, it sounds like an issue you might not want to touch in this age of political correctness.

But it leaves the question: How many systems of justice shall we allow in Alaska. Are there going to be different standards for different people?

Because for some folks in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Bethel, Kotzebue, and Nome, there is a whole cast of vagrants, drug addicts, gangsters, and troublemakers that the law abiding citizens of the city wouldn’t mind banishing.

It’s tradition, right?