Elders court helps Emmonak youth

Posted: Monday, December 17, 2001

EMMONAK (AP) -- A 16-year-old boy sits on a wooden bench before a court of elders, wiping away tears as he admits to drinking alcohol because he was angry with his parents.

The confession is not designed to elicit sympathy from a state magistrate. The boy has agreed to appear before a special court set up by the elders in his community.

The Emmonak Elders Group was formed in 1999 when six elders came together to respond to parents' complaints that too many youth were racking up criminal records. Though elders had always been integral to the community, the group was officially recognized by the Emmonak Tribal Council. To help their youth, they set up a court.

The project was funded by a $33,000 federal grant. Four elders were trained to be judges at the National Judicial College in Anchorage. When they returned to the village, they led the court's first sessions.

Since then the Emmonak elders court has held sessions twice a week and tried hundreds of cases referred to them by the magistrate in Emmonak. Youth now stand a better chance of feeling part of the community and keeping their records clean.

''It is not good for young people to get into trouble and be shipped out,'' said elder Paul Kelly. ''When that happens, it brings a black mark against them.''

Emmonak is a ''dry'' village where the possession of alcohol is illegal, but alcohol abuse is still a major problem, according to 1st Sgt. Stephanie Paul of the Emmonak Police Department. Juveniles often appear before the court for minor offenses linked to alcohol, she said.

Minors convicted of underage drinking are arraigned before the District Court in Emmonak where they are given a choice of either being tried by the state court system or the elders court. If they choose the elders court, the magistrate imposes a mandatory probation period and issues a suspended sentence. The offender must appear before the elders court and report their progress to the District Court.

''Now that the diversion plan is in place, they have an opportunity to correct their mistakes before it really affects them,'' said Emmonak District Court Judge Darlene Johnson.

Offenders also appear before the elders court for curfew violations, which is a municipal offense.

Teachers and parents can refer children to the elders court on charges ranging from not doing their chores to inhalant abuse, by writing a letter to the group.

Four stoic elders line a bench against the wall in the Emmonak Teen Center, a plain wooden building in the center of town. Bright yellow drums, which are used during community events, hang on the wall above them. The young offenders sit across from them, often keeping their eyes averted to the center's linoleum floor as the elders hear their cases.

''At first I was really scared, it felt like everyone was against me,'' said Jessica Tucker, 16, who was in court for a curfew violation. ''I kept thinking, 'What am I going to say? Uh oh, there's my grandma over there.'''

The jury may seem tough, but their goal is to keep the teen-agers protected and out of jail, said Darlene Andrews, elders and youth counselor for the Emmonak Tribal Council. About 40 percent of teen-agers tried in the elders court commit a second offense and are returned to the elders court, she said. But if a teen-ager appears before the court a third time for underage drinking, the case is transferred to the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice where the offender faces the state's judicial system. So far, this hasn't happened.

Elders attempt to draw the youths back into the community, giving them advice that ranges from telling the girls to learn how to sew, to techniques for avoiding peer pressure. And of course, they tell stories relevant to each situation.

Mary Ann Andrews, 56, turned the 16-year-old boy's tears into a smile as she revealed how she lied about her age to get her first job in a king salmon factory in Nunam Iqua when she was younger than he was. But her story turned serious as she explained that she handed her check over to her mother to buy clothes for her eight siblings.

''We were born Yup'ik, we're gonna die Yup'ik someday. We're not gonna change and there's a lot of good things we can do for each other,'' said Edward Andrews, Third Chief of Emmonak, as he addressed an 18-year-old girl charged with underage drinking. ''As a community, we must help ourselves, whether we are elders, middle-aged, youth -- we must stick together.''

To ground the teens in the foundation of the community, elders hand out community service assignments, which could include sweeping the Catholic church, scraping the muck off the floors and walls of the public sauna, or chopping wood for needy families.

The concept is not new to Emmonak. Thirty years ago, some tribal governments ''blue-ticketed'' people who threatened the stability of the community -- giving them one-way tickets out of town. But Emmonak elders said their elders used to try and integrate everyone, before the city was incorporated in the late 1960s.

Kelly remembers how tribal council members often sentenced adult troublemakers to haul buckets of water from the Yukon River to every doorstep in the village. The work was good for them then, as the community service is good for the teen-agers now, Kelly said.

''When a man goes to jail and comes back into the community, it is not long before he winds up back in jail,'' Kelly said. ''It doesn't work.''

The Yup'ik equivalent of guilt seems a better system of straightening youths out. Elders tell offenders how hard it is for them to see people from Emmonak go bad.

''The elders tell us that when they see us in there, it hurts their feelings, and it makes them feel sad,'' said Maxine Agathluk, a 14-year-old who was sent to the elders court for not listening to her parents. ''I never thought of it that way before. It really makes you think twice before committing mischief.''

Agathluk's mother, Tatianna Agathluk, believes the elders' advice eventually sinks in and helps teen-agers feel responsible for their actions. Having elders be a part of the system makes them feel part of the larger community, said Louis Immamek, community juvenile justice associate.

''After they go to court their emotions get more involved in what they did,'' Immamek said. ''They feel more cared for when members of their own community give them advice.''

Paul was called out to break up packs of teen-agers drinking by the Yukon River almost every night during October after Permanent Fund dividend checks arrived. She believes the elders court works well for first-time offenders who choose to listen, but not for those who turn a deaf ear to the elders.

''It is not enough for some. Especially for those kids who grew up in alcoholic families,'' Paul said. ''They grew up in that. They can't get rid of that.''

Elders also help families see their mistakes. After being hauled into court, Tucker finally spoke to her parents about how she felt they were mistreating her. Now they listen when she talks to them, she said.

The group offers counseling for adults and children in addition to the court. The Agathluk family started counseling after Maxine began going to court. Tatianna Agathluk said that even though her husband still flies off the handle sometimes, the counseling makes him think really hard about his words and his actions.

''When you need help, they are there to help you,'' Tatianna Agathluk said.

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