Banishment as last resort to fight meth scourge in Indian Country

The Standing Rock Sioux, spread across the Dakotas, are the latest tribe to consider ancient punishment to fight drugs

STANDING ROCK SIOUX RESERVATION — The basketball courts in Fort Yates, the central town in this reservation that straddles the border between North and South Dakota, are the first clue to just how bad the narcotics problem has become in the past five years.

The courts are mostly abandoned. Weeds and grass have taken root in the cracked concrete. Trash litters the sidelines, where scores of spectators once sat to watch local teens scrimmage.

“Nobody even plays ball anymore,” said Nola Taken Alive, a lifelong resident of Standing Rock, who makes sure a visitor also notices the rolling hills and the Missouri River’s calm water. 

The once-bustling basketball court near the old elementary school in Fort Yates is often empty now thanks to the prevalent drug trade.
Thosh Collins

Basketball is still beloved here, a mainstay of reservation culture, but the game isn’t alive in the streets they way it used to be. Instead, roads and lanes are peppered with evidence addictions to meth, heroin and other opiates. Houses where drug busts have taken place are boarded up. Many addicts roam the town, visibly ill, with teeth destroyed, jaws twitching.

“Meth is so noticeable here,” said Chad Harrison, another resident of Fort Yates, who was elected last month to his first term on the Tribal Council. “It’s a very thinly veiled problem because people are physically affected. It’s that emaciated look. You see it everywhere.”

Drug problems have surpassed alcoholism as the primary local substance abuse issue in Standing Rock, he said. It’s so common, he added, that people make light of it.

“If somebody loses weight just trying to be healthy, the joke is, ‘Oh, you must be on meth,’” he said.

To fight the drugs ravaging the Standing Rock community, this summer the Tribal Council passed a resolution stating an intent to banish convicted drug traffickers and dealers from the reservation. If banished, a person would be escorted by law enforcement officers to the reservation’s borders and would risk arrest upon re-entry.

Standing Rock is not the only tribe in the Great Plains that has turned to the penal tradition of banishment as a way to address struggles with narcotics. The Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe of North Dakota, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana have all recently passed similar resolutions. 

A re-emerging trend

Banishment is emerging as a way for tribes to fight the ravages of the illegal drug trade, said Gabe Galanda, a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes and the director of the National Native American Bar Association.

He suspects that even more tribes will follow. Banishment, after all, is rooted in indigenous tradition, and tribes, desperate to help their people, will assert their sovereignty through this policy instead of waiting for Congress to lend a hand.

“It’s a matter of last resort in an attempt to do something about a drug situation that may only be worsening,” Galanda said. 

He emphasized that traditionally, in precolonial times, tribes tended to use banishment sparingly and only for the worst of crimes, like murder and rape.

“Banishment implicates a person’s life, liberty and property interests, and that means the stakes are very high,” he said. In this modern context, “it should still be used sparingly and carefully.” 

Boarded-up homes on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, which straddles the border of both North and South Dakota. Meth addiction has hobbled its communities.
Thosh Collins

The concepts of tiospaye and oyate are embedded deep within the culture of Standing Rock. These words are used by the Lakota to describe each member of the tribe as part of an extended family. Rejection from such a tightly knit community would be a uniquely significant punishment for a tribal member.

Chase Iron Eyes, an attorney and activist who founded the popular grass-roots media outlet Last Real Indians, is a lifelong reservation resident and an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

“They passed the resolution in response to desperate pleas from constituents because babies are being born with meth in their system,” he said, “but it’s pretty clear to me that they didn’t think this thing through.”

Iron Eyes is worried that that the banished will simply have a less of chance at rehabilitation, and that tribal government will be subject to legal backlash. Some of those affected might have private property or land in trust.

“In America, private property is a sacred thing,” he said. “I think the tribe is just opening the gate to have to pay for more lawsuits.” 

Sending a message

Was’te Win Young supports the idea of banishment, citing the slow decline in community life she has observed since childhood. Now the program director for Standing Rock’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office, she has witnessed people selling electronics, clothes and even food benefits to get drugs. They even steal from family members.

“Two weeks ago, my cousin called me asking to help look for her nephew’s bike because her niece sold it to get prescription pills or meth,” she said.

Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault voted in favor of the resolution, but he stressed that it’s not yet law. “We’re sending a message that the behavior that’s taking place can no longer be tolerated,” he said. 

Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, says the resolution on banishment is meant to send a message: “the behavior that's taking place can no longer be tolerated.”
Thosh Collins

Current drug laws are outdated and too generic to deal with the variety of drugs that have recently become prevalent, he said. For instance, a constituent caught with methamphetamine paraphernalia could face the same punishment as somebody caught with marijuana, though meth use should be considered more serious, he said.

The tribe’s judicial committee will look at amendments to the drug code, then will hold a series of open meetings to gauge community reaction. It’s possible, he said, that the judicial branch of the tribe and not its council will serve the banishment orders.

“Banishment could mean a lot of things,” he continued, “but it won’t be so extreme as disenrollment for life. I wouldn’t support that.”

But even if banishment becomes law, it will stand on shaky ground.

“The BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] is chronically underfunded and understaffed,” said Scott Davis, the executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, “and it will be difficult for the BIA police to enforce this.”

He understands that the tribe is desperate to come up with solutions but doesn’t believe that banishment is the way to go. Instead, he suggests that tribes start extraditing felony drug warrants to the state “so that these drug dealers stop viewing the reservations as a hideout.”

There is also a civil liberties issue, said Bruce Duthu, an internationally recognized scholar of Native American law at Dartmouth College.

While Indian tribes have the power to exclude or banish people deemed undesirable from tribal lands, those individuals might have rights under the federal Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 to challenge the legality of the tribe’s action in federal court. In those instances, the person would have to prove that there was a severe restraint on his or her personal liberty.

The place of healing

Some tribal members like the idea of banishment because it is rooted in their heritage. In precontact times, the looming threat of banishment kept most tribal members from committing crimes. Standing Rock’s historical buffalo hunting economy was entirely community driven, and isolation would have led to a lifetime of loneliness and near certain death.

But the traditional element might not hold much weight in today’s society.

“If the tribe had a tradition of banishment,” Duthu said, “they probably haven’t imposed it in such a long time that it would be hard for people to re-create the circumstances that led to that or its effective consequences.”

Nola Taken Alive helps counsel youth with addiction problems on the reservation. The sign for the center behind her translates from the Lakota to "a place for help.''
Thosh Collins

Taken Alive suggested that Indian traditions are also relevant in another sense.

“These drugs are a trickster,” she said in reference to a common figure in Native American teachings. “So many of our tribal members grow up with trauma after trauma, so when they try that stuff and they finally feel good … the trickster says, ‘I got you.’”

For more than a decade, she has worked at an addiction counseling center for youths. She doesn’t think the tribe has focused enough on healing.

“They spend a lot of time on things that involve money, like economic development,” she said, “but you can’t put a price on this baby who is born addicted to narcotics, suffering every day. You can’t put a price on life.”

Taken Alive interpreted the sign that stands just off the highway in front of her tiny office building.

“Waokiye Oti,” she read out loud. “It means ‘a place for help.’”


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