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Rural Alaska

Tribal banishment of Togiak non-Native draws state investigation

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  • Updated: April 4
  • Published April 3

A longtime resident of the Southwestern Alaska village of Togiak was banished from the community last week, then jailed for days in a small holding cell when he returned, according to his attorney.

On Monday, the man was dragged to a waiting plane with his legs bound in duct tape, then was flown to Dillingham, said his attorney, David Henderson. There he was released, according to Deputy Attorney General Rob Henderson.

The state Department of Public Safety is investigating what happened. Gov. Bill Walker was briefed on the banishment Monday and directed the state departments of Law and Public Safety to follow up, the law department said in a written statement responding to questions from Alaska Dispatch News. The situation "does raise concerns for all involved," Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills said in an email.

Banishments appear to be on the rise in rural Alaska. The Togiak tribe has banished at least two other individuals since 2015. The tribe in Quinhagak, another village in Southwest Alaska, last year banished a group of individuals after a young woman's heroin death. Three Yukon River villages all banished a young man blamed for a fire in which three people were killed.

The Togiak tribal council last week ousted Ronald Oertwich, 72, after accusing him of attempting to import alcohol, said his lawyer, David Henderson. Oertwich denies the allegations but never got a day in court or any of the normal protections afforded to citizens, said Henderson, who has yet to see any banishment order or any tribal charging document.

"It's an illegal banishment," Henderson said.

Repeated messages left for the Traditional Village of Togiak – the tribal government – were not returned on Monday.

Oertwich is not an Alaska Native or a Togiak tribal member, his lawyer said.

"They don't own the city of Togiak" and can't eject someone from the entire town, he said of the tribe.

Togiak is a Yup'ik fishing community of about 850 people located west of Dillingham on Togiak Bay. It's incorporated as a second-class city under state law.

The situation began last week. The tribal council levied an alcohol accusation against Oertwich, then banished him, his lawyer said.

Initially, Oertwich left the village but after contacting the lawyer, David Henderson, decided to return. He runs a bed and breakfast in Togiak and has years of accumulated belongings there, Henderson said.

"He called me when he got banished and I told him they didn't have a right to banish him from his home and his business," Henderson said.

On March 28 when Oertwich returned, he was charged with trespassing and arrested, the lawyer said. Henderson said he was able to reach Oertwich a couple of times by calling the small jail but the conversations were quick and he didn't have time to collect many details. Oertwich is a diabetic and had some trouble getting his medicine, his lawyer said.

Oertwich told him he wouldn't get out of jail "unless he agrees to never come back to Togiak," Henderson said.

David Henderson said he repeatedly called the traditional council but couldn't get anyone to speak with him. He asked troopers for help in what he considered an illegal detention and was told they couldn't get involved but to contact the FBI, which he did.

On Wednesday, he sent a letter to the tribal judge and tribal council about what he called "the criminal illegal detention of Ronald Oertwich."

"I will remind you that Togiak is still part of the United States of America," he wrote. The Constitution "applies to all citizens of Togiak."

He said everyone involved would be sued. He demanded that Oertwich be released and left alone.

“Anyone who has participated in the arrest, assault, false imprisonment, and detention of Mr. Oertwich has violated numerous state and federal laws,” Henderson wrote. “You have arrested him and are holding him without any valid charges against him.”

Oertwich operated The Airport Inn Bed & Breakfast in leased space. It remains open, said a man who described himself as a friend of Oertwich's helping to run it.

The state Department of Law said it was alerted about the situation last week.

"While we recognize the problems with public safety and the lack of resources in rural Alaska, any actions must occur within the bounds of the constitution," Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said in the written statement.

Authorities need to work together to improve public safety but "we need to do that within the bounds of our authority," she said.

Generally, tribes cannot banish non-tribal members or hold them without legal basis, said Mills, the assistant attorney general.

A trooper post already was in the works for Togiak to help keep order, Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan said.

"The more we can collaborate with communities to ensure evidence is gathered in a constitutional manner, the more successful we will all be in making Alaska safer," he said in the statement.

Walker on Monday directed state agencies to look at how all involved, including tribal organizations, can improve public safety. The Alaska opioid crisis – the subject of a recent disaster declaration by Walker – is putting pressure on many communities, he said in the statement.

The governor intends to call a meeting of his Tribal Advisory Council to discuss the Togiak matter.

"We will continue to work with the Department of Public Safety to find out what happened and what, if any, actions still need to be taken," said Rob Henderson, the deputy attorney general.

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