July 3, 1997

Tribal leaders say traditional ways keep offenders home, not in prison

By Tom Kizzia
Daily News reporter

Ethnographers and elders familiar with tradition say Alaska Native communities had complex if subtle ways of resolving disputes before the arrival of white civilization. These systems were not always apparent to early white visitors, who often described Eskimos, for instance, as living in a virtually lawless state.

''Whereas the purpose of litigation is to choose and isolate a guilty party in a conflict and punish that person for misdeeds, the purpose of talking to an offender and listening to that person confess transgressions is to reintegrate both parties in the conflict into the normal functioning of the community,'' wrote Anchorage anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan in a study of Yup'ik governance.

These traditional systems faded in the middle of the 20th century, even more than other aspects of local governance, in the face of federal and state law enforcement.

Tribal leaders say they want to revive those traditional standards, often with the goal of keeping offenders out of state courts and jails.

Alaska Natives currently make up 35 percent of the inmate population, according to the state Department of Corrections. That's more than twice the percentage of Natives in the overall state population.

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