Banishment: It’s a thing in Alaska, but has it gone too far?



It is happening all over rural Alaska at an increasing rate: Tribal councils get together, make a decision, and give some bad actor the boot. Law and order in Native villages is different when there’s no State Trooper post.

But in a new twist, Togiak Tribal Council banished a crusty older white Alaskan, a longterm resident of the community.

Togiak is a second class city of about 850 people. It’s also a village. It has a tribal council and a Village Public Safety Officer, which is a quasi-police officer.

Ronald Oertwich, 73, was accused by the council of bringing alcohol into the dry village, and was banished illegally, said his lawyer, David Henderson.

Oertwich runs a bed-and-breakfast in Togiak and makes his living off the sports fishing enthusiasts who come there to catch  rainbow trout, dolly varden, silver and king salmon. His customers are non-Native.

The facts are murky but Oertwich has apparently been kicked out twice in recent weeks. The first time he ended up in the nearest town, Dillingham, which is where he called Anchorage personal injury lawyer Henderson for advice.

Henderson told him the village council had no authority to remove him from the village and that he should return.

After all, Oertwich has a tourism business to run and the season is ramping up.

Oertwich did return on Henderson’s advice, and that’s when community members detained him and kept him locked up in a holding cell, where he slept on a thin mat for six days. A diabetic, he had trouble getting the medicine he needs, Henderson said.

After six days, they bound him with duct tape, dragged him to an airplane, and sent him back to Dillingham.

There is no State Trooper post in Togiak, but according to Henderson, the Troopers were notified of the incident while it was under way. “I contacted the Troopers and they said they would not get involved, that I could contact the tribe, or FBI, and make a civil rights complaint,” he said.

There may be several entities that took part in the incident, which some critics say has important constitutional questions. The village council was allowed by the City of Togiak to use its jail. The Village Public Safety Officer may have been involved in hauling Oertwich into the jail. The Troopers knew of the case but may have decided it was a tribal matter. Henderson was told that the Attorney General’s office had been contacted, but didn’t take action.

While he was being held, Oertwich was not charged with a crime nor allowed an arraignment, according to Henderson, who is still trying to gather the facts on who all was involved, who knew what and when.

Within a few weeks, Oertwich may have a wrongful imprisonment or kidnapping case to file against several entities, including State agencies. At the very least, he has a civil rights case.

“The tribe had no lawful authority over a non tribal member,” Henderson said. “They locked him up in a jail cell, he had no due process, no attorney, no charges. The Supreme Court has ruled that tribes do not have lawful authority over nontribal members.”


Togiak is in Southwestern Alaska, and has banished others in recent years. But Togiak is not the only village to do so.

Back in 1994, two teens from the village of Klawock were banished to an uninhabited island for a year by their tribe. They had allegedly robbed and beaten a pizza delivery man in Snohomish, Wash. It made national news, but the two never spent their entire year on the island.

Quinhagak banished six people last year after heroin started showing up in the village, leading to several overdoses and one death.

Last year, Derek Adams was banished from three communities — Nunam Iqua, Emmonak, and Alakanuk, after his involvement in an arson fire that led to three deaths in Nunam Iqua, a village at the mouth of the Yukon River.

This February, four people were kicked out of Allakaket, as they were reported to have brought methamphetamines into the Interior village.

The State of Alaska generally tries to stay out of tribal politics, but the case law is unclear on whether tribal justice supercedes the U.S. Constitution, and whether it applies to tribal members and nontribal members alike.

In 2003, Judge Peter Michalski refused to dismiss a 2001 injunction he had issued on behalf of Perryville, about 200 miles southwest of King Salmon.

The village had banned John Tague. In upholding his injunction, Michalski wrote, “The law allows a tribe to ‘regulate the internal affairs of its members.’ ”

He referenced a 1999 case, John vs. Baker, where the Alaska Supreme Court recognized the sovereignty of tribal courts. But that case has never been tested in a higher court.

The administration of Gov. Bill Walker in 2015 established an 11-member Governor’s Tribal Advisory Council and he told media this week that he would be meeting with the council to discuss the matter.

Must Read Alaska has asked Walker’s Chief of Staff Scott Kendall if that meeting took place, but did not get a response by publication this morning.

Must Read Alaska has asked the Attorney General’s office for an update on the case but did not get a response.


  1. I think the tribe should be held accountable for its actions if any of the banished are killed or they commit suicide because they can’t go home I think it’s a violation of Human Rights I think people should be held accountable for their actions in the court of law not on some elders miss judgement a lot of these Elders are uneducated.

  2. So, because this person isn’t a tribe member, he should be allowed to do whatever he pleases? I think he should follow the rules the tribe sets if he wants to live in that community.

  3. As the tribes banish people from their villages and send them to Anchorage and Fairbanks, the homeless issue in the two largest cities in Alaska worsens. The tribes are shifting the care, costs and problems to the city and states, doing a disservice to their people.

  4. If it were a Reservation or even a tribe member, I would say “that’s their business”. But, since it’s neither one I would say it was illegal for the Tribe to do this. Togiak is a City of Alaska that IS a part of the United States of America. This should be treated just like any other City and/or State in the country. I’d say he does have a very good case against the tribe, as they have broken many laws and because of that I hope he wins. The tribes need to be educated on what little authority they do have. It doesn’t give them the right to break laws themselves since they ARE a part of State and United States laws. We here in the lower 48 do not get to pick and choose who our neighbors are. We can’t just kidnap, assault, imprison and kick someone out of our neighborhood or city for any reason, innocent or guilty. We may have sexual predators living next door to us, a murderer, a drug dealer, etc. None of us have legal right or authority to do anything about it and neither should they. The law also states that a person is innocent until PROVEN guilty. We can’t make that judgement ourselves without going through the proper authorities and processes. I’m curious to know the outcome of this case and I pray for the man involved. I hope this case teaches the tribe a lesson on State and US laws. I hope the Ron gets to run his business and live his life peacefully in HIS home.

  5. This practice has been going on for as long as I can remember. They used to “banish” people to another village and before phones, internet, etc. became available, no one in the village they were sent to knew the reason or even that they had been banished. Also due to close family ties the reasons were covered up, not spoken of. They used this practice a lot for sexual predators. This person was then free to victimize another person or persons. Sometimes the ones banished would go through 4 or 5 villages and often allowed back into the original village after enough time had passed for most to forget why the person was banished. It is a terrible practice that has lead to the harm of many, esp. children out in the villages. They should be treated as any other criminal and not allowed to walk away from their crimes.

  6. The banished was living and conducting business on tribal land, whether within the city or not. Just like you have the right to demand someone leave your private property, so do Native tribal organizations. Oertwich should be thankful he enjoyed as much time as he did profiting from his location. It is unlikely his lawsuits will succeed. The best he can hope for is for the tribe to partially compensate him for the loss of his business. It is much the same when you lease land from the state of Alaska – you vacate when they tell you to and your assets either have to be removed or they become the property of the State. There is very little private land in Alaska.

  7. In all reality all the tribes need to be disbanded we are all citizens of the United States there should not be special treatment depending on your birthright if he broke the law charge him if not lump it you don’t have the right to steal his assets.

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