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Tanana moves to banish two residents in wake of trooper shooting

Suzanna Caldwell
Following the shooting death of two Alaska State Troopers by a young resident of Tanana, the village has voted to banish two men who some see as having helped set the stage for the violent encounter. Loren Holmes photo

After a shooting in Tanana that left two Alaska State Troopers dead, the village has voted to banish two men with a long history of aggressive behavior. 

The Tanana Tribal Council began the process Tuesday to banish Arvin Kangas and William “Billy” Walsh. Kangas’s son Nathanial has been charged with shooting and killing the two troopers during a struggle on May 1. The troopers were in the village to arrest the elder Kangas after he made threats against the village public safety officer.

After the council vote, the Native Village of Tanana’s tribal court will  make a final decision on banishment, according to council chair Curtis Sommer. That trial, which will allow the two men to have representation, will be held “in the near future,” Sommer said.

Sommer said the proceedings have been a “long time coming” for the men, adding that they have long had issues with government and tribal authorities. He said Walsh has been aggressive toward the village tribal council members for decades, threatening over the years to “take care” of them and even shutting down tribal operations at certain times because of threats of violence. 

A community meeting in Tanana grew tense Saturday when several members of the “Athabascan nation” had an outburst before walking out, according to Sommer. Walsh has long been one of the most vocal leaders of the informal group, which expresses anti-government sentiments, Sommer said.

Sommer called their actions “intolerant.”

“We are not going to have any more intolerance in the village,” he said.

Kangas, 58, and Walsh, 61, were both out of town when the decision was made. Kangas is being held at Fairbanks Correctional Center on charges related to the shooting incident. Walsh left town earlier in the week, Sommer said.

Court records show Walsh has several times been charged with crimes related to violent encounters. In 2011 he pled guilty to third-degree assault with a weapon. Last year he was charged with fourth-degree assault and harassment. He had an appearance in Fairbanks court April 28. 

Sommer said while Walsh is a forceful, persuasive speaker, sometimes it became unclear what he and other members of his informal group were fighting for.

“When they spoke, they just hollered it out, and nobody likes to hollered at,” Sommer said. “The hollering just makes it impossible to understand.”

Cynthia Erickson, a longtime 4-H leader and 28-year resident of Tanana, said the men would insist their aggressive rhetoric was for the benefit of children, but she disagreed.

“It’s not normal. It’s not right,” she said. “We just have to tell the kids that’s not the way they should live and that’s not our people.”

Erickson was in Fairbanks Thursday, planning a memorial fundraiser for the slain troopers set for Friday at West Valley High School. She said it’s a relief to know that the two men are on their way out of Tanana.

“(The aggression) has to stop. It has to be a statement of strength,” she said. “This is not our Athabascan people. Our grandparents would be rolling over in their graves. We don’t spread blood. We don’t spew hate.”

The act of removing people from rural communities is not new. While it’s been practiced for centuries, in modern times it’s run into questions over its legality.

Heather Kendall-Miller, staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage, said tribal councils have legal authority over members, and that banishment would fall within their authority if the individuals pose a threat to the community. It’s often used as a “last resort,” she said.

Don Mitchell, former general council for the Alaska Federation of Natives, has long been a critic of those claims. He suggests that the legal authority to exert banishment doesn’t exist, since the federal recognition was never officially given to tribes by Congress. More legal challenges could provide some clarification, especially on matters related to banishment.

“Now those kinds of issues are front and center,” he said.

State Department of Law spokesperson Cori Mills said in a statement Thursday that the state has been contacted by the Tanana Chiefs Conference about potentially enforcing a tribal court order for banishing a tribal member. If the state does receives the order they will “carefully evaluate it.”

Whether the state would enforce that order “will hinge on the specific circumstances presented, and we cannot make a judgment one way or the other in the abstract,” Mills said.

Kendall-Miller said some communities have worked with local law officials to enforce banishment orders, though mostly at an informal level. 

She suggested that the situation in Tanana could possibly have been avoided if the community had been able to have a local law enforcement presence. She noted that Nathanial Kangas did not shoot the local village public safety officer on scene, only the two troopers who came in from out of town.

“Which suggests if communities had the local option tools that they needed to be to provide law enforcement, maybe these kind of situations could be avoided,” she said.

In Tanana, Sommer said he feels for the family and friends of the two men still living in the small Yukon River community, especially given recent events. But, he added, something had to happen.

“How long has the history of this happening and our attempts to remedy this situation occurred and nothing came of it?” Sommer said. “This has been a long time in coming.”