Minnesota’s Fond du Lac Reservation uses a traditional but rare punishment in an attempt to address violence and drug-trade problems. But does the practice go too far?
For hundreds of years Native Americans have fought colonization and banishment from their own lands. Now, in an ironic twist, some Native Americans are being banished from their reservations back to these same stolen lands in an attempt to address problems with violence and crime.
Tribal banishment is not new, but it appears to be gaining renewed attention because of tribes’ use of the practice to deal with contemporary issues.
In early tribal communities banishment was seldom used. A value that is shared by many Native communities includes staying out of others’ business and offering your opinion on a subject only when asked. This value allowed for harmony among the tribal members.
According to our tribal elders, there was no drug use or abuse, because drugs and alcohol were introduced to Native people by Europeans. Child abuse was very rare because parenting was shared by many members and children were treated as sacred gifts from the creator. Domestic violence was a problem only on occasion. If a situation wasn’t resolved, a relative or often a trusted elder was sent to speak to the offender and harmony was usually restored. If the situation continued unresolved then, banishment was used.
When a tribal member was banished, it amounted to a death sentence; survival depended on support from the tribe working together. On one’s own, a person was exposed to the elements, wild life and warring, rival tribes.
Now, banishment seems to be increasing across the country as tribes look for effective means to deal with increasingly violent criminals and the gang and drug trade that often accompany this criminal behavior. The tribes have fought for sovereignty and the right to banish under certain conditions.
At face value this seems to be a harsh step for a culture already struggling for survival. Tribes have shown resiliency in the face of assimilation, boarding schools, racism and hundreds of years of federal policy aimed at the extermination of our people. And now they are taking the seemingly harsh step of ordering select members off reservation land and stripping them of their tribal membership.
In 1999 Fond du Lac Reservation, adopted new rules to guide “removal and exclusion of persons from band lands.” Fond du Lac is one of six Chippewa Indian Reservations in the state of Minnesota organized as the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.The Fond du Lac Reservation Business Committee, which enacted the changes, said it was in the tribe’s best interests to have standards and procedures for the removal and exclusion of those whose conduct or associations pose a threat to the health, safety and welfare of the tribe. Included in this ordinance are measures providing due process for persons who are removed or excluded.
As of July 2014, 77 people have writs and orders of exclusion from Fond du Lac Reservation. This has been almost exclusively for violent crimes and/or illegal distribution of drugs. Forty six of these individuals are non Natives or Native Americans from another tribe. This means thirty one Fond du Lac Tribal members are currently excluded from the reservation land. Three of the 31 tribal members are minor children. The first tribal member to be banished from the Tribe was on July 12, 2001 and the most recent banishment occurred on July 9, 2014.
Banishment from the Fond du Lac Reservation means removal from the tribal lands but it does not include stripping tribal membership. Banished members are allowed to continue to collect their per capita payment from the tribe and to receive health benefits from the Indian Health Service Clinic located on the reservation.
The ability to connect to their culture in other ways is stripped away, however. For example, the banished may not attend the two powwows that are held every summer at Fond du Lac — the Sobriety Powwow and the Veteran’s Powwow.
These powwows are an important part of community life, and exclusion from this is a significant punishment. As says: “Pow wows are a time to put differences aside and to celebrate traditions, mostly it is the time to celebrate life,” says Elder Harold Flett of the Lac De Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “A pow wow strengthens an entire race of people. To be Anishinabe (the original people) is to be proud, to know who you are, and where you came from.”
Banishment is another form of cultural genocide and an example of internalized oppression. My fears are especially for our banished youth. Native youth are already experiencing cultural identity issues as well as historical, intergenerational and cultural trauma.
Shunning has been used in our Native communities as a traditional behavior management tool but was used for a very short term and the youth was welcomed back into the family/community after they learned the error of their ways. Banishment, therefore, is an extension of a time-honored Native practice. But in the case of our youth, they are being lost to us forever.
Donna Ennis is a licensed social worker in Minnesota and works as a children’s mental health case manager for Fond du Lac Reservation. She is also a respected Elder in the Fond du Lac community.