The principal and several school staff have left the Kipnuk community in southwestern Alaska over the weekend in two chartered planes following reports of a banishment order, the occupation of a school building and a brief blockade during a visit by soldiers from the State of Alaska.
Chief Paul Memorial School in Kipnuk remained closed for the second day in a row on Tuesday, with plans to switch to remote learning on Nov. 2, according to the Lower Kuskokwim School District, which cited “concern for the physical security for students and staff” in a written statement.
Many of the basic facts involved in the incident remain unclear, with tribal, state and school officials reporting brief public information or, in some cases, not responding to inquiries.
Most of what is known comes from a dispatch from the Alaska Department of Public Safety posted online this week, indicating that on Friday afternoon, Alaska State Troopers heard that Principal LaDorothy Lightfoot “locked herself in her office at school after Kipnuk Tribal Police attempted to take custody by signing a banishment order for unknown reasons. It was reported that members local community and Kipnuk Tribe police officers were inside the school as well as the LKSD teachers’ quarters looking for the school principal.
Kipnuk, with a population of approximately 700, is located on the Kugkaktlik River in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, approximately 85 air miles southwest of Bethel and near the Bering Sea coast. The population is predominantly Yup’ik.
Banishment has long been a way for Alaska Native communities to enforce rules and mores, a practice that predates contact and territorial laws. In recent decades it has entered a legal gray area, with proponents of tribal sovereignty insisting it is an established legal way for communities to protect themselves, and opponents calling the practice violation of an individual’s state and constitutional rights. In an incident that made headlines at the time, in 1995, Kipnuk leaders evicted a white resident accused of bringing drugs into the community, arguing with neighbors and to point a gun at people.
According to Troopers, they were unable to get to Kipnuk on Friday “due to lack of aircraft availability”, but spoke by phone with Lightfoot, who eventually returned home that night.
The school district described the incident more bluntly, writing in its statement that members of the Kipnuk Traditional Council “told students to go home as they tried to get to school.”
“On October 28, 2022, a large group of people purporting to represent KTC entered and occupied the school building and refused to leave, significantly disrupting the school’s educational environment. Subsequently, Tribal Police attempted to enter the LKSD teachers’ quarters,” the school district wrote.
According to the district, the problems date back at least to October 13, when the traditional council passed a resolution ordering students not to attend school, except for sports programs.
In response to an interview request, LKSD Superintendent Kimberly Hankins wrote, “The District has nothing further to say on the matter at this time other than what has already been released.”
The soldiers reached Kipnuk on Saturday afternoon, but were unable to get to town immediately.
“Upon arrival, representatives of the Kipnuk tribe and tribal police had blocked the promenade between the airport and the village. The soldiers were informed that the tribe did not allow access to the village. Alaska State Troopers were able to defuse the situation and get to the school,” the Department of Public Safety wrote.
The soldiers then met with school staff, ultimately determining “no crime had been committed”. They noted that no threats were made against school staff and that after notifying the state attorney’s office of the situation, no criminal charges were brought against the school staff. involved persons.
According to Troopers, “the principal along with other school staff elected to leave and were flown out of the village on two planes chartered by the school district.”
A Department of Public Safety spokesperson referred the questions to the Lower Kuskokwim School District and tribal entities.
An email and message left at the Kipnuk Traditional Council office were not returned Tuesday afternoon.
On Facebook Tuesday, several Kipnuk residents reacted to the news with confusion, frustration and brief mentions of misbehavior by the school administration.
Lightfoot did not respond to emails requesting an interview.
At this time, the school is closed and extracurricular activities are suspended, according to the district.
“Some staff will be teaching remotely from the Bethel District office,” the district said in its statement. “LKSD’s goal is to return to in-person learning as quickly as possible while ensuring the safety of staff and students.”