The Longest Goodbye

In 1889, when the leaders of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe signed the agreement with the federal government creating the Red Lake Indian Reservation, they showed impressive foresight. Not only did the band's leaders successfully resist the federal effort to "allot" land to individual Indians (thereby avoiding the loss of tribal lands to non-Indian real estate speculators), they permanently banned the sale and consumption of alcohol within the reservation's borders.

Despite intentions, alcohol abuse has remained a scourge in the sprawling,north central Minnesota community of some 6,000 people. But in recent years, it has been other drugs--notably, crack and methamphetamine--that have been at the root of some of the most violent and disturbing crimes to occur on the reservation.

For Jim White, a member of the Red Lake Tribal Council, the low point came in February 2002, when a homeless, crack-addicted woman broke into the home of 68-year-old band member George Stately. The woman proceeded to beat Stately with a hammer, slit his throat and set his house on fire--all for a $50 rock of crack.

As White sees it, Stately's murder might have been prevented had law enforcement authorities dealt with the reservation's drug dealers more quickly and effectively. But jurisdictional issues make that difficult. Major crimes at Red Lake fall under the purview of the U.S. Attorney's office, where cases often linger for years. Red Lake's tribal courts, meanwhile, have a limited authority when it comes to meting out sentences; the maximum penalty is just one year in tribal jail.

Looking for a solution, last month the Red Lake Tribal Council amended its Prohibited Drug Crimes Code authorizing tribal judges to use a new sentencing tool: banishment. Judges will have the authority to banish band members from the reservation for any of a number of drug offenses. White expects the tool will be used sparingly, and that it will be targeted exclusively at drug dealers.

While the revised ordinance passed by unanimous vote, some critics worry that it could be implemented unfairly. For years, tribal officials at Red Lake and elsewhere have issued orders banishing non-band members from reservations--and complaints are common.

Clara NiiSka, a non-band member who lived with her husband at Red Lake for the better part of two decades, was banished by order of a former tribal chairman following a dispute over the probate of her husband's estate. For NiiSka, the banishment felt "like a social death penalty," under which she had scant opportunity for appeal. With the expansion of such punishment now extending to tribal members, NiiSka worries about the prospect of civil rights being trampled. "It sets off warning bells," NiiSka observes. "This is a part of a nationwide movement among tribal attorneys to systematically expand the powers of tribal courts."

And the banishment law is open to abuse, NiiSka speculates: "It could be used by those drug dealers who have good political connections on the tribal council to eliminate the competition."

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