On August 10, Akiak’s Tribal Council banished Jacques Cooper from their community. According to Tribal Council Member Mike Williams Sr., the vote was unanimous.
A former Village Police Officer, Cooper, age 43, is accused of bootlegging and selling marijuana to both adults and minors in the village. Both Williams and Akiak Native Community Chief Ivan M. Ivan say that a series of local residents have made statements against him. The Council’s order bans Cooper from Akiak through August 16, 2040, and gave him seven days to leave town.
The trouble is that Cooper still hasn’t left and denies all of the allegations against him. The community’s effort to drive him from Akiak has devolved into shouting matches and public threats of violence, some of which have been streamed live on Facebook.
Last Sunday, Akiak residents angrily confronted Jacques Cooper at his home. Local resident Kimberly Smith broadcasted the interaction on Facebook Live. In the video, Cooper is standing on his faded, yellow porch in his socks, slouched against a pillar. He’s packing two large knives, holstered at either hip. About a half-dozen local mothers and tribal leaders are standing in front of his house.
“You are banished from Akiak!” a man shouts.
"We can ban anyone," says a woman in the background. "The tribe can ban anyone."
"For [what]?" says Cooper.
"For what you’re doing - drug dealing and bootlegging!" the woman shouts. "Mr. Refill-A-Jug!"
The video is about 40 minutes long, and as it continues it becomes clear that Cooper is recording the confrontation too. He mocks the crowd with a cartoony voice; they yell back at him. Then the allegations start.
"I don’t trust any of you all," Cooper says in the video. "Particularly after people [were] shooting at my house twice."
"That wasn’t us!" someone in the crowd yells. "That person that was shooting is probably not even here!"
Cooper moved to Akiak last year when his wife was hired as a Special Education teacher at the local school. He worked briefly as VPO and began raising goats and chickens in his backyard. According to Akiak Native Community Chief Ivan, it became an open secret that Cooper was selling alcohol and marijuana in town.
“This is a small village,” Ivan said. “It’s hard to hide whatever you’re doing from other people.”
Residents allege that Cooper invited minors to work on the small farm he started behind his house, and then may have paid them in marijuana or alcohol. In an interview with KYUK, a 15-year-old girl who asked to remain anonymous recounted an incident last March when she and another girl visited Cooper and other underage people were there smoking marijuana. The girl said that she and her friend left after Cooper tried to touch her.
According to council member Williams Sr., Akiak community members have complained to the State Troopers about Cooper. He added that this isn’t the first time that Akiak has banished someone for bootlegging.
“We just feel that we have enough problems here as it is,” said Williams. “And having an individual like that in the community just adds fuel to the fire and we just cannot afford that anymore.”
There have been at least a dozen banishments in Alaska since 2015, many which have targeted accused bootleggers and drug-dealers. The practice can be controversial. In an email exchange yesterday, Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills wrote that “banishment orders can present difficult constitutional issues that have to be evaluated on a case by case basis.”
In an interview with KYUK, Jacques Cooper said that he didn’t know about his own banishment order until it was issued.
“They never had a meeting I was notified about,” he said. “There has never been any evidence presented [against me].”
Cooper said that that while he smokes marijuana for medicinal purposes on his own time, he doesn’t sell it. He also claimed that he has been harassed in Akiak for months. The trouble started, Cooper said, when he was working as a VPO and attempted to arrest a man named Kenneth Phillip - the nephew of Akiak’s mayor.
“My issue has been the complete despotic nature of the ruling families here, and the fascist manner in which they run the town,” Cooper said.
Cooper claimed that he is scheduled to testify against Phillip on September 18. While KYUK has been unable to confirm this, Kenneth Phillip has been charged with three counts of assault. His trial is scheduled to begin in Bethel on September 13.
Cooper also said that he is being threatened. He claimed that someone shot one of his goats with a BB gun. Another person shot a dog, which Cooper said they thought belonged to him, and Cooper also claimed that someone shot at the side of his house last Saturday. Akiak Chief Ivan M. Ivan denied that any shooting has occurred.
According to council member Williams, Cooper will be able to get a proper hearing on his banishment if he wants one. "We welcome it," said Williams. "We request it."
But so far, Williams said, they haven’t heard anything from him. As it stands now, a hearing is currently scheduled before the Tribal Court for August 16, 2040 at 1 p.m. According to the Council’s banishment order, the Court will determine whether Cooper’s banishment order should be extended at that time.
Regardless of any controversy, Williams said that he defends Akiak’s decision to banish Cooper.
“We do not appreciate anyone coming here and selling alcohol and drugs or anything like that to our community members,” he said. “We just won’t stand for that, and our ancestors didn’t stand for that either.”
KYUK’s investigation into this story is ongoing.