Alaska State Troopers traveled to Kipnuk on Oct. 29, where the school principal, LaDorothy Lightfoot, had locked herself into her office at Chief Paul Memorial School after the Kipnuk Tribal Police had attempted to take her into custody and serve a “banishment order for unknown reasons,” according to the trooper dispatch report.
The incident began Oct. 28, but troopers were not able to get to Kipnuk until the next day due to lack of an available aircraft, and meanwhile, Lightfoot was able to escape to her residence, where she spent the night.
Lightfoot and other staff members were eventually able to flee the village, but not until troopers were able to get through the tribal officers’ blockade that they established on the boardwalk. From the report posted at Department of Public Safety, the tribal officers were conducting a standoff with troopers; it appears that the Kipnuk Tribal Police were declaring tribal sovereignty as they practiced “banishment,” which tribes in Alaska have been permitted to do. It’s legally unclear in Alaska if tribes are permitted to practice banishment against non-tribal members, and the extent of a village’s sovereign powers is a gray area of the law. The Kipnuk Traditional Council is the federally recognized government in Kipnuk.
The incident follows one earlier in the month, when the traditional council told parents to not send their children to school until further notice, as reported by KYUK public radio. In mid-October the council met with more than 30 parents to discuss concerns they had over various school issues, including safety at the school, which has about 205 students from elementary through high school grades.
In that resolution, there was an exception made for children who participate in athletic programs — they could still attend regular classes, according to KYUK reporting of the situation.
Things appeared to have escalated since Oct. 14, however, and came to a head on Oct. 28, when the village police tried to take Lightfoot into custody. Classes were canceled Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
Update: KYUK reports that the school has now shut down for in-person learning due to lack of staff. Students will be studying remotely.
Starting Nov. 2, they will shift to remote learning following an apparent dispute between the school district and the Kipnuk Traditional Council.
“Two weeks ago, the council sent a letter to all Kipnuk households prohibiting children in the village of around 700 people from attending school, citing concerns for the physical safety of students,” according to KYUK.
“On Oct. 31, the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) released a statement announcing the school’s closure. It also cited concerns for the safety of students and staff. Kipnuk’s Traditional Council has not agreed to comment,” the station reported.
“On October 29, 2022, at 1:15 pm, Alaska State Troopers arrived in Kipnuk. Upon arrival Kipnuk Tribal representatives and Tribal Police Officers had blocked the boardwalk from the airport to the village. Troopers were advised the Tribe was not allowing access to the village. Alaska State Troopers were able to deescalate the situation and travel to the school. Troopers met with the principal and school staff to determine what was happening. Troopers were able to determine that no crimes had been committed and worked with the school district to facilitate assisting those that wanted to leave the village in doing so. The principal along with other school staff chose to leave and were flown out of the village on two aircraft chartered by the school district. No threats were made towards Troopers or school district staff. The District Attorney’s Office has been notified of the events; no criminal charges have been filed at this time,” the report from the Department of Public Safety says.
According to the troopers’ report, the Kipnuk Tribal Police, while attempting to take Lightfoot into custody, never contacted the Alaska State Troopers during the incident. While troopers were in contact with the school principal, the tribal officers refused to take calls from state troopers and tribal leadership also did not respond to trooper calls.
“Alaska State Troopers attempted to contact Kipnuk Tribal Police and Tribal leadership by telephone without success. The Kipnuk Tribal Police Department did not contact AST at any point. Troopers were unable to respond due to the lack of availability of aircraft. Troopers and the school district were in contact with the school principal who was able to return to her residence, where she remained for the night,” the report says.
The superintendent for the Lower Kuskokwim School District had been in Kipnuk for a site visit on Oct. 14, and was also scheduled to be in the village for another site visit Oct. 25-26.
Kipnuk is located near the Kugkaktlik River on the coast in the Bethel Census Area. Its residents are mostly Yup’ik-speaking Eskimos. Tristan Carl is listed with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs as the president of the Village and Clarence Daniel is the school board president.
“Our community lives according to the traditions and rhythms of its native Yup’ik heritage. Residents practice subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering. According to the 2014 census, our population was 626,” the school reports on its website.
The school of approximately 205 students “is served by two highly qualified certified administrators, 15 certified teachers, three associate teachers of Yugtun, 12 instructional aides, and 15 classified employees. From our 100% graduation rate, to our high-flying Falcons basketball team, we celebrate student achievement both inside and outside the classroom.”
“The staff and administration of Chief Paul Memorial School dedicate themselves to providing Kipnuk with a safe and nurturing learning environment in which committed faculty and staff educate the ‘whole child.’ Our work at Chief Paul Memorial School promotes instruction in the native Yup’ik language of Yugtun, adherence to traditional Yup’ik values, and prepares students to take their places as leaders of the 21st century,” the website states.