Troopers: No plans to intervene in village dispute

ANCHORAGE — Alaska State Troopers said they don’t know who the rightful tribal leaders are in a western Alaska village involved in a power struggle, so they’ve taken no action weeks after a federal judge said the agency could use force to evict former leaders.

The Jan. 12 ruling was in response to a request by the new leaders in the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Newtok who asked the court to enforce a November ruling that ordered the old faction to stop claiming to be the community’s governing body.

The former leaders have refused to leave the tribal office or relinquish records in the flood prone village, among Alaska’s most imperiled communities because of aggressive erosion.

“The Alaska State Troopers have carefully considered the federal court order and consulted with legal counsel,” agency spokesman Tim DeSpain told The Associated Press in an email Thursday.

The agency does not believe the order requires any action at this time and remains hopeful the office building occupancy issues can be resolved by the parties involved, he said.

Troopers also said they do not have the benefit of knowing the recognized members of the village council. Troopers declined to say more, including whether the matter is complicated because it involves a federal order and an agency of the state.

The State Department of Law is reviewing the case, and Gov. Bill Walker is waiting to hear its assessment, Walker spokeswoman Grace Jang said Friday.

Law department spokeswoman Cori Mills could provide no immediate information about the status of the review.

The dispute in the community of 380 people began in 2012 and stalled millions of dollars in government funds for relocation efforts.

State officials also had hoped to make a national relocation model of the village through a national competition for states and local governments vying for a share of nearly $1 billion in grants from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Alaska did not make the final cut, however, and was not among winning entities announced in late January.

In his three-page order, U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline said the recognized leadership faction was entitled to immediate possession of village records and equipment. The judge said the previous leaders could be forced to leave the tribal office and that troopers could enter their homes to look for any records or equipment.

Current tribal administrator Tom John said Friday he was new to the process and didn’t know where else to turn. He said Yup’ik culture discourages the use of force, so the new leaders will make do for now with the records and equipment they have in hand and the office space they’ve been using.

“We have no other choice but to go forward,” John said.

Andy Patrick, a member of the council that’s no longer recognized, said he would have liked to have met with troopers as well as other agencies about the dispute.

“I was hoping they would come and see what’s really happening,” Patrick said.

The former council lost its recognition as the village’s governing body from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2013. They appealed that decision, but the Interior Board of Indian Appeals upheld the bureau’s decision in August.

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