ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that authorities can use force if needed to remove former leaders of a tribal community who have refused to leave the offices after losing a long-running power dispute in one of Alaska's most eroded villages.
Flood-prone Newtok is among Alaska's most imperiled communities because of severe erosion, and its residents have begun relocating. The leadership dispute, which began in 2012, has stalled millions of dollars in government funds for the effort to physically move the Yup'ik Eskimo village to higher ground 9 miles away.
The community of about 380 people that is 480 miles west of Anchorage is under consideration as a possible national model for relocating whole towns threatened by natural disasters.
The village's new sanctioned tribal leaders asked U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline to enforce a Nov. 4 ruling that ordered the former leaders to stop presenting themselves as Newtok's governing body.
In his three-page order, Beistline said the new leaders are entitled to immediate possession of village equipment and records. He said the former leaders can be forced to leave the tribal office, and state police can enter their homes to look for any records and equipment.
"The Alaska State Troopers may use any reasonable force deemed necessary by them to accomplish these acts," Beistline wrote.
Andy Patrick, a member of the former tribal council, said his group plans to get an attorney. He declined to comment further.
Tribal administrator Tom John said he hand-delivered copies of the ruling to the three former officials named in court documents. He said the legal effort was the only option left.
Troopers have not yet been contacted about their role in resolving the matter, John said, and he's not sure when that will happen.
"I've never dealt with these kinds of issues before," John said. "It's all new to me."
The agency has not yet seen the court ruling and it would be premature to comment on it, troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said in an email. Troopers are frequently asked to serve court-ordered evictions, but she "cannot recall the eviction of an entire tribal council in the past."
Mike Walleri, attorney for the new tribal council, said later Tuesday his office forwarded copies of the ruling to the troopers.
The new tribal council wanted help from the agency because forcibly taking over the office and tribal records themselves would be contrary to Yup'ik values against "self-help," according to Walleri. The new leadership also followed another aspect of Yup'ik culture: showing patience toward the former leaders, Walleri has said.
The ruling is the latest legal defeat for the former council, which lost its recognition as the village's governing body from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2013. They appealed that decision, but the Interior Board of Indian Appeals upheld the bureau's decision in August.
Follow Rachel D'Oro at https://twitter.com/rdoro .