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Rural Alaska

Tradition on trial

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published February 4, 2010

Sentences handed down for hunters who pled guilty

Three of the eight Point Hope men originally charged with wasting meat from between seven and nine caribou they hunted in 2008 were sentenced Thursday to fines and community service.

The sentencings, which resulted from plea deals the men took in recent months, came during a break in this week's trials of three other Point Hope men who were also implicated in wasting meat during the summer 2008 hunt. Charges against an eighth man were dropped in December, as the state was unable to connect that hunter to any shooting or to a specific dead animal.

Alaska Superior Court Judge Richard Erlich sentenced Lazarus Killigvuk, Randy Oktollik, and Koomalook Stone in a makeshift courtroom at Point Hope's community center. A fourth hunter to take a plea deal -- Brett Oktollik -- is expected to be sentenced later in the day. The sentencings included fines ranging from $850 to $2,200 and 50 to 120 hours of community service, including hunting education and outreach.

In handing down the sentences, Erlich told state prosecutors he was upset with the glaring difference in circumstances between the group of hunters who took plea deals and those on trial this week. The men on trial now -- Aqquilluk Hank, Chester Koonuk, and Roy Miller, Jr. -- are exposing themselves to risks, and opening up publicly their perceptions of the world.

Erlich also took issue with the component of the plea deals that call for the men to perform hunter education in cooperation with state troopers as community outreach. The men should not, he told prosecutors, be held up as experts in the community.

A state prosecutor countered that the punishments are appropriate and the education component will help address the problem with the belief among some Alaska Native communities that it's legal under state game laws to not salvage meat from animals believed to be sick, and also tackle the perception that the state has failed to adequately educated hunters about the laws they are expected to follow.

Killigvuk, who stopped hunting after he was charged in the caribou waste case, said after his sentencing that he will likely resume after he pays his $850 fine and completes 50 hours of community service.

Killigvuk told investigators that of the animals left behind, one was too wounded to salvage, and two others were taken only to discover there was not room for more weight.

"I thought we had enough room. The first we shot was shot too much, and when we shot the other two we had too much already, too many eggs," he said leaving the courtroom after today's hearing. He added, "I will think about the things we did and do the right thing for my people, and teach my people to do the right thing. I am sorry, for the community, that this happened."

A lawyer for Randy Oktollik, who was sentenced pay $850 and serve 50 hours community service, said the only reason his client took a deal was that he didn't have enough money to take his case to trial. Oktollik and his attorney maintain caribou meat that looks diseased shouldn't be salvaged.

"No reasonable person who shoots a caribou, who sees that it has this disease -- you just have to be insane to take it into your village or touch it. Medical personnel when they encounter this were wearing hazmat suits," Oktollik's attorney, Allan Dayan, told the court via cell phone from Anchorage.

Oktollik told the judge that he was just trying to protect his family, and that he was sorry.

Koomalook Stone, who was still in high school when troopers started their investigation, received the most severe penalty -- a $2,200 fine and 120 hours of community service. Although he aided troopers by leading them back to the scene of some of the kill sites, prosecutors explained he was the one defendant to whom they were able to directly connect most of the waste.

Departing the courtroom, Stone said he was glad the case is over. It's been an upsetting process, although he thinks he was wrongfully accused of more waste than actually occurred. Things for him have changed since the summer hunt in question. He hopes to go to college soon, but admits life in the village hasn't been easy, as people's views of him have changed.

"They call me ‘caribou killer' or ‘caribou slaughterer,'" he said.

In handing down all of the sentences, the judge said it was important to note that of the 37 carcasses troopers confirmed were wasted during July 2008, only seven of the dead animals have been connected to defendants, meaning more than two-thirds of the wasted kills remain unsolved.

UPDATE: A fifth hunter, Brent Oktollik, was sentenced Thursday afternoon. Oktollik was escorted to Point Hope in handcuffs from Nome, where he is serving a sentence for an unrelated matter.

"I would like to apologize to the community for leaving sick caribou behind," Oktollik said. "Next time I will bring it back and throw it in the Dumpster."

Erlich replied that disposing of meat in a Dumpster might be a problem, too.

Oktollik was ordered to pay $850 in restitution and complete 65 hours of community work service.

On the second day of trial in Point Hope, heat returned to the makeshift courtroom, and one by one, villagers climbed into the witness seat to have their say.From the aged faces of elders and one of the stress-worn defendants came stories of tradition and honor, of living off the land, and of resistance to state laws that don't fit with the reality of day-to-day life in a remote village shaping an identity between two worlds: old and new, indigenous and colonizer.

And there, in the golf ball-shaped community center with a bingo board hanging overhead, an agent of the new laws of the land -- a prosecutor from Anchorage -- questioned Inupiaq culture bearers on their home turf about their hunting traditions and elicited confessions of steady civil disobedience, sometimes passive, sometimes bold, to outside rules.

Luke Koonuk, 81, shot his last caribou five years ago after more than six decades of hunting the animals. The elder, whaler and caribou hunter didn't let the court know he was annoyed with the lack of equipment on hand for the proceeding. Like a lot of the other older witnesses who would follow on the witness stand, he's hard of hearing. Not having headphones to help augment the day's testimony meant there were gaps in what he was able to take in.

On the stand, Koonuk spoke of passing on good hunting practices to his children, and to his nephew, Chester Koonuk, who is also one of the defendants. He personally hasn't run across sick caribou, but he knows people who have, and to this day, he testified, he would still advise young hunters against eating meat harvested from animals thought to have disease, and to leave the suspect parts behind. He was surprised to learn from the prosecutor that feeding caribou meat to dogs, even meat thought unfit for humans, is against the law.

And Ray Koonuk was bluntly honest with prosecutor Andrew Peterson about not ever having a hunting license, and not planning to get one even though he knows he's supposed to have one.

"There's too many laws," he told Peterson, who replied with a laugh and a jovial nudge toward Koonuk: "Yeah, there's a lot of laws."

Even the North Slope Borough's Director of Wildlife Management, Taquluk Hepa of Barrow, testified that she -- a hunter raised in a subsistence family -- has made a conscious choice not to get a license. It's her belief that licenses shouldn't be required for traditional hunts, and she would like to see the state's laws changed to fit the way people in the Arctic actually live their lives. It's not about disregarding the law, she explained later in the day, but finding a medium between the state's rules for all and the reality of life in its traditional, often isolated communities.

Hepa also testified that while she engages in community education and outreach, she doesn't think it's her job to be expertly versed in the state's game laws, or to ensure hunters are aware of them.

"My goal is to change the law so we don't have the situation we have here today," she told the court, explaining that as recently as last week, she'd become aware of a hunter who'd left a sick-looking caribou behind in the field.

A clear pattern emerged of villagers managing hunts guided by family and cultural tradition, irrespective of potential conflicts with state laws. They view themselves as good stewards of the land and its animals, and as food gatherers who venture out in service to the community as a whole first, themselves second.

Late in the day, one of the accused hunters finally had a chance to have his say. Aqquilluk Hank, 31, a city councilman, basketball coach, husband and father of four young children, dressed respectfully for the occasion -- wearing a white coat over a shirt and tie -- and he looked worn down as he described the stress the high-profile case has meant for him and his family.

He and his cousin, Roy Miller Jr., and uncle, Chester Koonuk, took eight caribou during the July 2008 hunt, returning to the village with six after making a decision to leave two behind, he testified. Of the six he returned with, he kept only one for his family. The rest went to elders, the other hunters and other family members. He learned his hunting ethics from his grandmother, who taught him "a good man does not return with sick meat."

Discovering a lump on the liver of one animal, Hank said, he feared it was ill with disease. He shot another to put it out of its misery, after he and his hunting partners encountered a dying bull. Too shot up to salvage, the group chose to leave it behind.

But on cross examination, the state's prosecutor took a decidedly more aggressive tone with Hank than had been displayed previously in the trial. Assistant Attorney General Andrew Peterson grilled him about inconsistent statements made during the investigation, and his testimony at trial. Was the reason for leaving meat behind fear of illness, or inconvenience? Peterson argued that Hank at one time had suggested he left meat behind because hauling it back would take up space that otherwise could go to good meat. He also questioned Hank's more vivid recall of events now than at the time troopers first came calling.

On the stand, Hank's codefendant, Roy Miller Jr., echoed Hank's testimony. Miller described being an inexperienced hunter after having left Point Hope for five years to get a better education at a boarding school in Sitka, and how Koonuk and Hank were guiding him as he learned. With his head down, hands clutched and his voice low, he said he is the sole provider for his family, and he sometimes wishes he could accomplish that through traditional hunting -- subsistence -- instead of holding down a job to earn money.

When Peterson aggressively pushed Miller over recollections and characterizations of the hunt, Miller pushed back, as when prodded about his initial description of the wounded bull the men left behind.

"You make it seem like it was barely shot up, but it was shot up severely," he forcefully said to Peterson's line of questioning.

Another testy exchange took place when Peterson wanted Miller to give a more specific estimate on the size of the herd the men encountered. Miller refused to characterize at as anything other than "big."

The state laws, rules and regulations are supposed to apply equally to all Alaskans, but in Point Hope, 1,200 miles from the state capitol in Juneau, it became clear that distance has a way of distilling the day-to-day power of the state's written law.

"If you had this to do all over again, would you behave the same way now as you did then?" defense attorney Jon Buchholdt asked his client.

"Definitely, I would, without a doubt," Hank replied.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)

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