Tribal banishments, and the complications of frontier justice - Must Read Alaska
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Tribal banishments, and the complications of frontier justice

Community members of Sand Point, Alaska, confronted a man at the airport in 2013 and sent him back to Anchorage. They suspected him of being a drug dealer. (Carmen Dushkin photo from Facebook.)

In 2013, Sand Point residents became increasingly alarmed when a suspected drug dealer kept showing up in town. Whenever the angular stranger disembarked from a plane, young people started getting high on drugs.

In a small town in the Aleutian Islands, locals take note of such things. They observe small changes in the weather. And they know when kids are getting high.

Sand Point took charge, and a group of burly locals went to the airport, confronted the man as he entered the terminal and sent him back to Anchorage.

It could have gone very wrong. Mobs showing up at airports to block an arriving passenger is problematic in a republic that prides itself the rule of law.

But on the frontier, there is no law enforcement. The local decision, imperfect as it is, may be the only way to ensure safety.

Village of Allakaket. (US Fish and Wildlife photo)

Last week, the village of Allakaket took charge of its community when suspected meth dealers started showing up: They sent four people packing to Fairbanks.

No, there was not an arrest warrant, nor file of evidence. But the village council convened, discussed the problem, shared stories, heard from others, wept a bit, and finally took action.

PJ Simon, chief of the federally recognized Allakaket tribe, held the emergency meeting at the tribal office. About 25 people were reported to have attended — nearly one quarter of the village that lies on the south bank of the Koyukuk River, 190 miles northwest of Fairbanks.

Allakaket, largely Athabaskan, is still a dry village — it doesn’t allow alcohol in. People live by hunting and fishing, and collecting various checks from the government, their Native corporations, and the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend. There’s not much of a cash economy. In the last census, there were but 41 households in the village, and most of the inhabitants are related.

Chief Simon said he believed the newcomers had arrived in advance of Alaska Native Village Corporation shareholder dividends being distributed. The calendar of check distributions is something that wiley drug dealers take note of in Alaska. Last year, the K’oyitl’ots’ina Ltd. dividends were distributed in March.

In a place like Allakaket, four armed drug dealers stick out, but banishing them is also traumatic, due to the close familial relationships. In this case, two of the banished were residents of Allakaket, while two were not. One of the banished was given a lifetime banishment sentence.

The trend of dumping undesirables is a form of frontier justice that is an old-school Alaska way of cleaning up a community.

Villages like Allakaket are not practical locations for Alaska State Troopers. There is little housing, and outsiders are generally not welcomed. Even teachers posted in villages never stay long; some don’t even make it through a school year.

Although the village had a public safety officer in 2014, it’s without one now. Absent an officer, the solution appears to be the village tribal council.

Derek Adams set a fire that resulted in the deaths of three people in Nunam Iqua. (Bethel District Attorney photo)

MEANWHILE, IN NUNAM IQUA

Last year, 22-year-old Derek Adams was banished from his Yup-ik village of Nunam Iqua, after he had set a fire at a home a few years earlier. It resulted in the deaths of three people, including a child. In addition to banishment, he was sentenced to time served and put on parole.

Adams was also banned from Alakanuk and Emmonak before being arrested in Bethel for carrying large amounts of cash and what appeared to be heroin. He later tested positive for THC (marijuana) and opiates and was booked in September. A reopened hearing on his latest drug case is set for March 8 in Bethel.

While Nunam Iqua’s elders are likely feeling that they made the right decision, the Adams case is an example of how banishment from one village can result in banishment becoming a chain reaction, where communities pre-emptively prevent someone from entering a place where justice systems are not up to the task of dealing with them. The other villages that banished Adams didn’t want to be a dumping ground for Nunam Iqua’s bad boy.

FRONTIER JUSTICE

Banishment is a loose method of frontier justice outside of the law, generally a result of either no law enforcement presence or dissatisfaction with local lawmen.

In the wild West, frontier justice meant tar-and-feathering, gun duels, lynching, and putting people on a train out of town with the warning, “Don’t ever let us catch you in these parts again.” There wasn’t a lot of due process involved. Everything was left up to the judgment of the mob.

Today’s frontier justice in village Alaska is simple, non-violent, but has never faced a true court challenge: They put you on a plane and send you and your problems to the nearest city that has law enforcement. With villages too tiny to police, this appears to be the only way for locals to nip the drug epidemic in the bud.

In 2003, an Anchorage Superior Court judge upheld the right of the village of Perryville to eject a resident who had a history of alcohol-fueled violence. But that’s as far as the challenge went.

It’s not best-practice justice, but it’s the only solution that locals have the ability to enforce in places where there are no police, no courts, no bail bondsmen, and no jails.

Someday, the practice of banishment will run up against a legal challenge that might come from someone who convinces the American Civil Liberties Union to take his or her case.

But until then, banishment is a curious Alaska anachronism, a little bit wild West, and a little bit Native justice. The state’s legal system looks the other way and hopes for the best.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Although based on old tribal practices, banishment also has its roots in English common law. More than anything, it works for small communities that can’t afford law enforcement or whose law enforcement is corrupt. I wouldn’t equate it with “mob justice”. It’s the right of the people assembled to choose who may live within their community. It’s actually a great example of direct democracy in action.

  • Sand Point has a police department. “But on the frontier, there is no law enforcement. “?

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