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Alaska village banishes 6 over drug and alcohol suspicions

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 15, 2016
  • Published September 13, 2016

Community members ride through Quinhagak during a drug awareness march on Aug. 23, 2016. Courtesy Stephan Jones.

BETHEL — The tribal government and tribal court in the Southwestern Alaska village of Quinhagak announced Tuesday the banishment of six people, five of them suspected of involvement in illegal drugs, alcohol or other dangers to the community.

The village still is recovering from four overdoses last month from people who mixed heroin with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. One of the overdose victims died.

The revelation of the banishments came Tuesday afternoon from the Native Village of Kwinhagak — the tribal government for Quinhagak.

"In light of the recent drug related tragedy, NVK is providing this update on actions it has taken mainly to clear up any doubts or misconceptions of what the NVK Council and Tribal Court have done so far, and what it has been doing to start the fight against the drugs and alcohol existence within Quinhagak," the tribal council said in a written statement.

The tribal push for safety in Quinhagak follows action in three other villages, Nunam Iqua, Alakanuk and Emmonak. Over the summer, each banished a young man convicted in state court of causing three deaths in a 2013 fire in Nunam Iqua.

The Quinhagak tribal council, NVK, was advised by its attorney not to release the names of the banished individuals, five men and one woman, said Patrick Cleveland, tribal administrator.

Four of the banished people were connected to each other and weren't from the village, he said.

They are suspected of providing drugs because of connections to residences with high traffic at all hours including late into the night, or their names have popped up in the small community, which has fewer than 700 people, he said.

The heroin overdoses in Quinhagak occurred one after the other on Aug. 15, Alaska State Troopers have said. Community health aides in the village tried for two hours to resuscitate Jamie Brenda Roberts, 19, but were unable to bring her back. She died. Two others were medevaced out of town. Another man, not as sick as the rest, was treated within the village.

The tribal government has been working since early this year on a local law to allow searches and seizures of drugs and alcohol. Quinhagak is a dry village, with no alcohol allowed.

The tribal council approved the contraband and alcohol ordinance on July 7, putting in place "the first instrument the Tribe needed to start the fight against the presence of illegal drugs, alcohol and other controlled substances," the council said.

But before it could start acting under the new law, the death of Roberts and hospitalization of two others forced the tribal council and court to act, they said. They met in a joint emergency executive session to figure out a response.

"The conclusion was made at the meeting that immediate actions were necessary to protect the children, membership and community from the deadly presence of illegal substances, and act against those that make it available in our community," the council said.

Another tribal government, Togiak Traditional Council, assured Quinhagak that was taking the right course, the Quinhagak council said in its statement.

On Aug. 17, two days after the overdoses, the council and court said in the statement that they held hearings "to banish five (5) well-known dealers of illegal drugs, substances and alcohol."

The individuals were given an opportunity to be heard, Cleveland said. Some had already left, he said.

All are ordered out of the village for at least a year. The sixth individual had been previously banished, but the action was "reinforced," the tribal council said.

The statement said that three of the six were still in the village as of the end of August.

"We might be down to two," Cleveland said.

The tribal council has asked for help from Alaska State Troopers to enforce the banishments but hasn't heard back, he said.

"At this point, we're not getting involved in that," trooper Sgt. Teague Widmier said Tuesday afternoon. Trooper Capt. Barry Wilson, commander over the Western Alaska detachment, has said that troopers cannot enforce banishment orders. Still, in some villages, troopers have helped tribes get banished individuals onto planes and out of town.

Troopers would only get involved in a tribal action with direction from the state Department of Law, Widmier said.

Also on Tuesday, the tribal council and court extended condolences to Roberts's family and friends.

"We all hope your family bond continues to be strong during this time of grievance and recovery," the tribal organizations said.

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