Man banished from Alaska Indigenous community for bootlegging

Communities of Akiak, Quinhagak, Togiak, Allakaket and Tanana (seen on photo) all have banished people in recent months and years. (Eric Engman/Daily News-Miner/AP Photo/CP File)
BETHEL — The tribal government in the village of Akiak this month banished the husband of a teacher, accusing him of bootlegging and “furnishing substances to young people.” The tribe ordered Jacques Cooper to stay away until the year 2040.

But as of Wednesday, Jacques Cooper, who said on Facebook that he’s from Rochester, New York, has remained in the Kuskokwim River village even though his wife has moved to nearby Tuluksak to teach.

Along with banishment by the tribe, the Yupiit School District has sent him letters to vacate the teacher house where he is still living. Village leaders are offering a free boat ride out of town, but say they will resort to force if it comes to that.

Akiak is a small Yup’ik village of about 350 people, 42 air miles from the Bethel hub. Most people there travel by boat in summer and snowmachine, truck or four-wheeler in winter.

The banishment order is the latest in a string of similar incidents in rural Alaska villages. In most cases, local residents want to rid their community of people they believe to be bootleggers or drug dealers.

Cooper, 43, said in a series of Facebook messages the claims against him are unjust. He said he has not sold alcohol in the village or smoked marijuana with school kids, as his accusers claim.

He said he smokes marijuana and has bought it in the village, but doesn’t sell it. He worked briefly as a village police officer.

He said he is preparing to join his family in Tuluksak. He said he just wants to make sure the house and yard, where the family has goats, turkeys, ducks and chickens, are clean and in order before leaving the school district house.

Showdown in the village

Tribal leaders and others say there is ample evidence to support the Aug. 10 order, which took effect a week later. Village residents angrily confronted Cooper on Sunday at teacher housing. A tribal wellness worker live-streamed the encounter on Facebook.

Kimberly Smith, who works for Akiak Native Community, the tribal government, as coordinator of suicide prevention and substance abuse prevention, said residents have told her they would bring him an empty bottle and $10, and he would pour $10 worth of liquor into the bottle.

Sometimes he sold more, residents said. One woman said in an interview that he sold her a fifth of R&R whiskey for $80.

“Is there an empty bottle out here?” Smith shouted out during Sunday’s confrontation, captured in a 38-minute video on her Facebook feed. It has gotten almost 5,000 Facebook views.

“Who’s got 10 bucks?” She called him “Mr. Refill-A-Jug.”

“You need to go!”

Mike Williams, a longtime sobriety activist and tribal leader, told Cooper residents would help him leave, bringing him and the animals by boat to Tuluksak or wherever he wanted to go. Williams said later he thought Cooper should go back to wherever he is from.

“We will gladly take you. We will fill up our boats with your pets and animals,” Williams said.

Cooper stood on the porch with a large knife strapped to his hip, the video showed. His own phone was at the ready recording. A chicken walked out. A dog dashed in and out. A turkey gobbled.

His housing lease was expired and he was supposed to be out already, Smith yelled.

“You better check it again,” Cooper answered. A more recent official notice from the district confirmed his lease expired July 31 but gave until Aug. 28 to leave before the district would sue to evict him.

“We’re asking you nicely to leave,” one woman said.

Not nice, he answered.

“Tape him up and take him out,” someone interjected, referring to how the village of Togiak earlier this year ejected a longtime resident.

“Yeah, well, you go ahead and try,” Cooper said.

The confrontation went on.

“Go!” “You need to go!” “Go to your wife. Go to your kids!” they yelled at him.

His farm animals were dirty and skinny, Smith said. A prior village public safety officer had a nice farm and paid kids to work on it. Cooper didn’t do that, she said.

Cooper says village residents are out of hand. Someone shot at his house, he said.

Beyond Akiak

Banishments are becoming more visible around Alaska. Akiak’s tribe banished three others in recent years. Quinhagak, Togiak, Tanana and Allakaket all have banished people in recent months and years whom they considered harmful.

The state attorney general’s office has no specific policy or guidance on banishments. Generally “banishment orders can present difficult constitutional issues that have to be evaluated on a case by case basis,” said Cori Mills, an assistant attorney general.

State attorneys have not evaluated Cooper’s case and the department wasn’t aware of it until a reporter asked Tuesday, Mills said.

This spring, the Department of Public Safety investigated the banishment of a Togiak man who returned to the village only to be held for days in a small cell, then duct-taped and put on a plane to Dillingham. The issues between the Togiak man, Ronald Oertwich, 72, and the tribe were resolved, and no charges were filed, Mills said.

Cooper, who is not Native, said he never received notice of the hearing or an opportunity to defend himself. He contends he is being targeted as retaliation for his own identification of corruption in the village and says the real importers and dealers are related to a town official. He named others who he says are the real trouble for Akiak.

Complaints elsewhere

The Akiak Native Community tribal council, doubling as tribal court, considered the evidence against Cooper at a meeting Aug. 10. Council members had collected written statements from residents telling of Cooper selling alcohol and furnishing marijuana to young people still in school, said Williams, who worked years as a substance abuse counselor in the village.

Tribal chief and elder Ivan Ivan — a former state legislator — signed the banishment order.

If Cooper wants to challenge the decision, he can request a hearing, Williams said. The tribal council would welcome it.

“After considering all available information, it finds the safety of the residents is endangered, and the welfare of the village is threatened” unless Cooper is banished, the council said in a statement released Monday night.

Village residents also reported their allegations to Alaska State Troopers and to the school district. No charges were filed and troopers have no information to release, said Megan Peters, trooper spokesperson.

Yupiit School District Superintendent Rayna Hartz said the district takes citizen complaints seriously, but declined to answer specific questions.

One 15-year-old girl said in an interview that she and friends went to Cooper’s home in March to look at pet rabbits in a back bedroom. His wife was out of town, the girl said.

Some kids began smoking marijuana in the living room, the girl said. She said she grew uncomfortable when he put his hand on her back and soon left with her friend. Cooper said her story was false.

Smith and others are working with young people who they feel may have been harmed through involvement with Cooper, Williams said.

“They are supported here and they need to deal with their issues of alcohol or other substances,” he said.

The banishment has broad support in Akiak, he said.

“The whole tribal council has taken action,” he said. “We’re not going to rest until this action is implemented.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Indigenous mental health funding sends important signal says Canadian Inuit leader, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Finland’s unacknowledged problem: Alcoholism, Yle News

United States: Alaska Villages without running water or health aides: Federal officials hear about challenges, Alaska Dispatch News

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