The Arctic Sounder

After four years of a legal fight, Selawik resident reunited with her grandaughter

After a four-year-long custody battle, a child with roots in Selawik was reunited with her grandmother this spring, and the tribe held a welcome home party for her last month.

“She enjoyed it,” Chanel Rustad’s maternal grandmother Arlene Ballot said. “She also had three birthday parties, so she was excited. … I said, We’re gonna make up for all the birthdays that I missed.”

Chanel Rustad, now 5, is the daughter of Eric Rustad and the late Kristen Huntington. After Eric Rustad killed his then-girlfriend Huntington in January 2020 in Fairbanks, Chanel Rustad stayed with foster parent Nikki Richman.

Ballot of Selawik has been in a legal fight with Richman for custody of the child in tribal, state and federal courts.

The case gained attention from the public after the wide circulation of screenshots that, according to Ballot’s supporters, suggested that Chanel Rustad was called “Mowgli” and “little Native baby” by Richman’s partner Joseph Jurco. Last summer, a wave of rallies and walks took place statewide to advocate for reuniting the child with her grandmother.

[Selawik, Ambler and Fairbanks residents rally to draw attention to tribal custody case]

For Ballot, the process meant not seeing her granddaughter for a year and a half and involved a lot of traveling between Selawik and Fairbanks.


“I never got a chance to even grieve, you know. That’s how difficult it was for me,” she said. “I was going to court for my daughter’s murder and then going to court trying to get my granddaughter or to even see her.”

Tanana Chiefs Conference, Selawik IRA and the Maniilaq Association provided help to Ballot along the way. Antonia Commack, who was best friends with Chanel Rustad’s mother Kristen Huntington, has been advocating and fundraising for Ballot reuniting with her granddaughter.

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. Ballot registered her granddaughter as a member of Selawik Tribe.

The Selawik Tribal Court granted Ballot custody of Chanel Rustad for the first time in December 2022, reasoning that Ballot can meet the needs of Chanel Rustad, has a safe home for her, is her immediate family and can better connect her to her Native culture, according to the court order concerning the child’s custody.

The state court raised concerns about the tribal court decision being biased, and, after several more legal procedures, the Selawik Tribal Court held the second custody hearing in July 2023 and granted custody to Ballot again, Tribal Administrator of the Native Village of Selawik Tanya Ballot said.

According to Commack, Richman argued the Selawik Tribal Court decision was still partial, so there was another state hearing in 2023 where Ballot was granted custody. Richman then filed stalking charges against Ballot when the grandmother tried to visit the child, Commack said. In January 2024, the state court held an emergency hearing where the case was closed, Commack said.

The transition period for Chanel Rustad started in February, in which Ballot stayed in Fairbanks and regularly brought her granddaughter to see her. The two also visited a therapist’s office, Ballot said.

Then it was time to fly to Selawik.

“Everyone who was (in the) airport clapped and welcomed them home,” resident Susie Loon said. “It was (a) very heartwarming moment.”

Adjusting to the move was not easy for Chanel Rustad at first, Ballot said, but with time, she became more comfortable and met her cousins and her great-grandmother.

“The longer she stays here, she will fully adjust to being here with her own people, her own family,” Arlene Ballot said.

At home, Chanel Rustad has her own bedroom that her mother grew up in and that Arlene Ballot has prepared for her in the past year. Arlene Ballot works as a cook for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and has a flexible schedule that allows her to spend time with her granddaughter.

Next year, Chanel Ballot will go to school, and for now, the two are learning more about each other, Arlene Ballot said.

“I can tell that her and I love each other, and she trusts me, which is the most important thing,” Arlene Ballot said. “I’m still figuring all the stuff that she eats and getting to know her better.

“She likes chocolate and that’s my weakness too,” she laughed.

While the reunion is happy news for Commack, she said that the fight is not over. Although Eric Rustad killed Chanel Rustad’s mother and has been convicted and sentenced to 50 years in jail, his parental rights are still not revoked, which is an issue she said she hopes will be eventually addressed on the legislative level.

For Arlene Ballot, adopting the child will become possible after Eric Rustad’s rights are revoked, Commack said.


“This was four years too long,” Commack said about the case. “Tribal courts do have sovereignty and they should be respected by the state courts, but that didn’t happen in this case twice.

“I think this (case) being so public is going to help a lot of other cases down in the future because it feels like we’re working towards state courts respecting tribal sovereignty,” she added. “But we’ll see what happens in the future.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.