Village tribal court banishes accused bootlegger

Kyle Hopkins

Tribal leaders in the Western Alaska village of Akiak say they have banished an Anchorage man they suspect of sneaking alcohol into the village.

"With all of the suicides, domestic violence going on in our community, we're fed up with that, and we're finally taking action," said Mike Williams, a member of the Akiak tribal council. "We're going to start prosecuting and taking action against these individuals."

Two tribal judges ruled that Joseph Miranda may not enter the riverside Yup'ik community until he talks with the tribal court and tribal council, Williams said. It is the first time in decades, he said, that Akiak leaders have turned to the traditional punishment of banishing someone from the village.

In this case, Miranda does not live in Akiak but would be "taken into custody" if he entered the community of about 360 people without approval from tribal leaders, Williams said.

Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said two state-trained Village Public Safety Officers working in the village would not enforce the tribal court ruling. "A VPSO wouldn't be able to take someone into custody for that. That would be an unconstitutional detainment."

The tribal government employs two of its own police officers, Williams said.

Akiak residents voted to ban the sale and importation of alcohol in the community in 1991, according to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Under state "local-option" laws, communities can vote to outlaw sale, possession or importation of booze.

Williams, a musher who competes in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to promote sobriety among Alaska Natives, said the tribal council has received a series of complaints alleging that Miranda had brought alcohol to the village.

"Within minutes, we know who is bootlegging because the communication is rapid now with texting and with the cell phones," Williams said.

Akiak is home to one of about 230 federally recognized tribes in Alaska.

The idea of banishing lawbreakers and troublemakers resurfaced during suicide prevention meetings, where elders suggested resurrecting traditional laws, Williams said.

Whether tribal courts have the legal authority to ban people, including nonmembers, from a village is "thorny" issue, said Lisa Jaeger, a tribal government specialist for Tanana Chiefs Conference who provides training for tribal court officers.

"It goes to challenges over tribal jurisdiction and Indian country and state jurisdiction and private individual rights and all of these things," Jaeger said. "So it's a very difficult issue."

Sometimes, people are effectively banished from villages through community pressure rather than a tribal court order, she said. "We can have entire villages go to this person's house and escort them to the airport."

In other cases, a troublemaker can be removed by checking to see if they have a warrant out for their arrest or by working with troopers to make a criminal case against them, she said.

Akiak leaders provided information about Miranda to troopers but decided not to wait for a criminal investigation that might never come, said Lenora Gilila, the tribal court administrator who presented the case Wednesday.

"We asked them how we can get it to stop, but there's so many steps that they go through. At that time our community was really hurting, because there was a lot of alcohol. So we just took action," she said.

Miranda, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, did not respond to a letter asking him to stop his alleged activities and did not appear for subsequent hearings in the village, she said.

Tribal leaders placed a public notice in the March 27 edition of the Delta Discovery, a Bethel newspaper, announcing the Wednesday banishment hearing. The notice said he also is accused of dealing drugs.

Miranda didn't show. The hearing lasted one to two hours at the village community center with tribal members speaking a combination of English and Yup'ik, Williams said.

If Miranda enters the village, tribal police have been ordered "to take him into custody until the tribal court meets with him," the council member said.

Miranda's criminal record includes a 2008 conviction for attempting to illegally ship 24 bottles of R&R whisky to Barrow, court records show.

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