Residents of Selawik, Ambler and Fairbanks gathered for walks and rallies last week to bring attention to a three-year-long battle for custody of a child with roots in Selawik. In streets, squares and other public spaces, participants displayed banners and shouted chants with slogans such as “Bring Chanel Home” and “Tribal Law is law.”
“Everyone walked around Ambler. So awesome. ... All ages: Elders, little kids, everybody supporting,” Ambler resident Lolo Taylor said in the videos from the walk in her village. “We support Chanel. We hope she is home with her grandma where she belongs,” she said.
Chanel Rustad, 4, is the daughter of Eric Rustad and the late Kristen Huntington. Eric Rustad killed Huntington, his girlfriend, in January 2020 in Fairbanks. Afterward, Chanel Rustad stayed with foster parent Nikki Richman, to whom Eric Rustad had given power of attorney before his arrest, according to an order from the Superior Court for the state of Alaska. Richman, a Fairbanks resident, was identified as Eric Rustad’s friend in the court order.
Since then, Richman and Chanel Rustad’s maternal grandmother, Arlene Ballot of Selawik, have been mired in a legal fight for custody of the child playing out in tribal, state and federal courts. Public awareness of the case surged following the wide circulation of screenshots of Facebook posts — written by Richman’s partner Joseph Jurco, according to Ballot’s supporters — calling the child “Mowgli” and “little Native baby.”
In July 2021, Richman filed a petition in state court to adopt Chanel Rustad, but the court refused the request, stating that the Selawik tribe, where Ballot registered her granddaughter as a member, has jurisdiction over the child’s custody, according to the court documents. Following the Indian Child Welfare Act, tribal governments have exclusive jurisdiction over children who are members of their tribe so that children have an opportunity to stay connected to their families and culture. (Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the 1978 law, in a decision hailed by Alaska Native groups as a victory for tribal sovereignty.)
Selawik tribe in December 2022 granted Ballot custody of Chanel Rustad for the first time, according to the order concerning the child’s custody signed by the Native Village of Selawik Tribal Court. The reasons stated in the order included that Ballot can meet the needs of Chanel Rustad, has a safe home for her and is her immediate family.
The order also stated that “Arlene Ballot can better meet the spiritual and cultural needs of Chanel Rustad and can better connect to her Native culture, the subsistence lifestyle and her tribe and her extended family.”
However, the state court raised concerns about the tribal court decision being partial, and in February 2023 denied Selawik’s motion to register a tribal court order, according to the order from the Superior Court for the state of Alaska. The court also denied Richman’s petition to dismiss the tribal court decision, stating that the tribe has the jurisdiction to make those decisions.
Richman had also asked the federal court to dismiss the Selawik Tribal Court ruling, but the court denied the request in June 2023, explaining that “the federal court is not a proper vehicle to challenge Selawik’s child custody decisions,” according to the order issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska.
After a second custody hearing this summer, the Selawik Tribal Court once again granted custody of Chanel Rustad to Ballot on July 17, Tribal Administrator of the Native Village of Selawik Tanya Ballot said in an email. (Tanya Ballot is married to Daniel Ballot, who is a distant cousin of Arlene Ballot.)
As of Aug. 7, Chanel Rustad was not home with her grandmother, Tanya Ballot said. She added that she can’t share more details about the court decision and the case. According to the Alaska Court Rules, court adoption records are confidential and sealed.
“Until Chanel is home with her grandmother,” Ballot said, “information is limited at this time.”
Walks to ‘Bring Chanel Home’
On Aug. 2, residents across Alaska rallied and marched to bring attention to the case of Chanel Rustad.
In Selawik, where Huntington is from, about 30 people walked across the bridge, chanting, “Bring Chanel Home.” In Ambler, more than 20 people participated in the walk around town, holding a wide banner with the slogan. The biggest walk took place in Fairbanks, with more than 40 people gathering behind and in front of the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel, said Huntington’s friend Antonia Commack.
“It was a good turnout,” Commack said. “There were a lot of people passing by.”
Speakers and a drum group were a part of the Fairbanks event, she said. In Ambler, banners saying “Our children belong with us,” and “We love you, Chanel” were seen in the crowd. People in Selawik also held photos of Chanel Rustad and her family.
Besides bringing awareness to Rustad’s case, the goal of the walk was also to educate residents about the importance of tribal law, said Clara Maude, who is originally from Selawik and lives in Ambler.
“It is important because tribal law is something that everyone should know is a very powerful government,” she said. “Our people need to know we can exercise that right.”
Maude said that she participated in the walk to support Arlene Ballot’s case because she thinks it is important for Alaska Native children to stay close to their culture.
“We have lived through the assimilation of our parents who were sent away and now our language is dying — most don’t speak or understand it — causing all sorts of distortion of identity amongst our people,” she said. “If we (could) prevent one child from being taken away then, we would have. But we can now and we will.”