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UPDATE : Banishment Tests Not Only Criminals but Their Tribe as Well : Squabbling has erupted among the Tlingits in the midst of their rehabilitation experiment involving two young convicts.

June 21, 1995|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EVERETT, Wash. — When Tlingit Indians learned that two of their own were to be sentenced here for committing a brutal robbery, they pleaded for a chance to compensate the victim and banish the guilty teen-agers to deserted Alaskan islands.

The tribal leaders were intent on trying to reclaim the youths for the good of a small, aging tribe with a declining birth rate--and for all Native American communities seeking more control over their own lives. And in a surprise move, a Snohomish County judge agreed to give them the chance.

Cousins Adrian Guthrie and Simon Roberts had pleaded guilty in the 1993 baseball-bat attack on pizza deliveryman Tim Whittlesey, snatching $40, a beeper and a pizza as their victim lay on the ground with a fractured skull. Judge James Allendoerfer approved the experiment in cross-cultural justice last August and postponed formal sentencing until March, 1996.

Ever since, a small army of Tlingits has been donating time and money they can ill afford to carry out what has become the most costly and divisive undertaking in the tribe's recent history.

Thus far, Tlingit fishermen, lumberjacks and tribal leaders have spent more than $60,000 and an estimated 10,000 man-hours on the legal work, food, bedding, tools, fishing trawlers and muscle needed to settle the wayward youths on separate islands in southeastern Alaska's vast Alexander Archipelago.

Relatives of the two 18-year-olds have given $5,000 in cash to Whittlesey, who suffered permanent damage to his hearing and eyesight in the attack, toward restitution they say will not be complete until they buy him a duplex home in this seaside community about 26 miles north of Seattle.

But what once appeared as an entire tribe coming together to take responsibility for the actions of its youths has devolved into intra-tribal squabbling. Some say it is a clash between traditionalists, who insist banishment and restitution are crucial to the rehabilitation of both the victim and criminals, and assimilationists who are not all that unhappy with the American system of justice.

There also are rumbles from Snohomish County prosecutors, who argue that Allendoerfer is treating Native Americans differently from other defendants. They also were incensed that the youths initially were placed on U.S. Forest Service land and armed with high-powered rifles.

Earlier this month, tribal leaders moved the youths to uncontested Tlingit islands and took away the guns that were provided as protection against wild animals.

Still, the central question--whether the banishment will work according to plan--is open-ended. A state appellate court recently excoriated Allendoerfer for earlier suggesting that banishment might result in reduced sentences for the youths. Under state sentencing laws, Roberts and Guthrie are facing prison terms of 3 1/2 years and 5 1/2 years, respectively, when they return for sentencing.

"Is the banishment worth it? Yes," said Tlingit Tribal Court Judge Rudy James, 59, who shepherded the novel arrangement with his wife, Diana, and a handful of tribal elders.

"The point is not just restitution and rehabilitation," James said. "This is an act of sovereignty that stands for the continuation of our people and our ways."

A thousand miles to the north, the teen-agers have spent the last eight months on separate islands foraging for berries and firewood in the forest, scouring beaches for edible shellfish and carving wooden halibut hooks for sale toward restitution.

Tlingits hope the youths will discover their heritage and honor in the process. With only two books to read--the Bible and a treatise on Tlingit culture--there also will be plenty of time to reflect on their crime.

In a videotaped interview conducted last October at his banishment site, Guthrie conceded that while "everyone has demons, mine are some real bad dudes."

While some critics view the banishment as a ploy to circumvent the justice system, supporters say it speaks to a larger nationwide movement of indigenous people seeking sovereignty--and alternatives to a legal system they believe does not work for Native Americans.

The problem is clear, they say, in the youths' home state of Alaska, where tribal people account for 30% of all state prison inmates, while making up only 16% of the state's population. There, too, the recidivism rate for tribal members hovers at about 50%, according to the state Department of Corrections.

"American Indians want to return to traditional sanctions that worked for them, and it all turns on a yearning for self-determination and setting their own cultural norms," said Charles Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and an expert on state and federal laws as they apply to Native Americans. "The best example," he said, "is the concept of making a victim whole again and engaging in some form of healing that will make the offender not do wrong again."

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