Principal, staff flown out of Southwest village after tribal banishment order

The principal and several school staff members left the community of Kipnuk in Southwest Alaska two weekend ago in two chartered planes following reports of a banishment order, occupation of a school building and a brief blockade during a visit by Alaska State Troopers.

As of Nov. 1, the Chief Paul Memorial School in Kipnuk remained closed for the second day in a row, with plans to switch to remote learning Nov. 2, according to the Lower Kuskokwim School District, which cited “the concern for the physical safety for students and staff” in a written statement.

Many of the basic facts involved in the incident remain unclear, with tribal, state and school officials pointing to brief public information releases, or in some cases, not responding to inquiries.

Most of what is known comes from an Alaska Department of Public Safety dispatch published online this week, saying that on the afternoon of Oct. 28, Alaska State Troopers heard that Principal LaDorothy Lightfoot “had locked herself in her office at the school after Kipnuk Tribal Police attempted to take her into custody by serving a banishment order for unknown reasons. It was reported that local community members and Kipnuk Tribal Police Officers were inside the school as well as … (school district) teacher housing searching for the school principal.”

Kipnuk, with a population of about 700 people, sits on the Kugkaktlik River in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, about 85 air miles southwest of Bethel and near the Bering Sea coast. The population is primarily Yup’ik.

Banishment has long been a way for Alaska’s indigenous communities to enforce rules and mores, a practice pre-dating territorial laws.

In recent decades, the state’s legal response has waffled between raising objections over individuals’ constitutional rights and honoring the rulings of sovereign tribal governments, which federal courts have sided with in instances involving Indian Country and self-governance. In an incident that drew headlines at the time, in 1995 Kipnuk leaders expelled a white resident accused of bringing drugs into the community, arguing with neighbors and pointing a gun at people.

According to state troopers, they were unable to travel to Kipnuk on Oct. 28 “due to the lack of availability of aircraft,” but talked by phone with Lightfoot, who ultimately returned to her house that night.

The school district described the incident more bluntly, writing in its statement that members of the Kipnuk Traditional Council “told students to go home as they were attempting to get to school.”

“On October 28, 2022, a large group of people purportedly representing … (Kipnuk Traditional Council) entered and occupied the school building and refused to leave, greatly disrupting the educational environment in the school. Thereafter, tribal police attempted to enter … (the) teacher housing units,” the school district wrote.

According to the district, problems go back further to at least Oct. 13, when the traditional council passed a resolution directing students not to attend school, other than athletic programs.

In response to an interview request, Schools Superintendent Kimberly Hankins wrote, “The district does not have any more to say on the matter at this time other than what has already been released.”

Troopers did reach Kipnuk on Oct. 29, but could not immediately get into town. “Upon arrival, Kipnuk Tribal representatives and Tribal Police Officers had blocked the boardwalk from the airport to the village. Troopers were advised the tribe was not allowing access to the village. Alaska State Troopers were able to de-escalate the situation and travel to the school,” the Department of Public Safety wrote.

Troopers then met with school personnel, ultimately determining “that no crimes had been committed.” They noted that no threats were made toward school staff, and that after informing the state district attorney’s office about the situation there have been no criminal charges issued for anyone involved.

According to troopers, “the principal along with other school staff chose to leave and were flown out of the village on two aircraft chartered by the school district.”

A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety referred questions to the Lower Kuskokwim School District and tribal entities. An email and message left with the Kipnuk Traditional Council’s office were not returned.

On Facebook on Nov. 1, several Kipnuk residents responded to the news with confusion, frustration and brief mentions of poor conduct by school leadership.

Lightfoot did not respond to emails requesting an interview.

For the time being, the school is closed and extracurriculars are suspended, according to the district on Nov. 2. “Some staff will be teaching remotely from the district office in Bethel,” the district said in its release. “It is … (the school district’s) goal to return to in-person learning as quickly as possible while ensuring the safety of staff and students.”

 

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