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SANTA FE, N.M. — American Indian tribes across the country have in recent years revived the centuries-old practice of banishment as a form of punishment, these days as a way to deal with violent criminals, drug abusers and gang members on the reservation.
While banishment has been relatively scarce among tribes in New Mexico, it did crop up recently.
Nambé Pueblo passed a resolution in February to expel a non-Native man from its boundaries for an unspecified amount of time. The resolution says only that Steve Edward Romero “poses a grave risk to the health, safety and welfare to members of the community,” and that his banishment is “specifically to maintain peace within the Pueblo and in respect for the Laws of the Pueblo.”
Romero – whose criminal record involves a wide range of offenses, including drug and domestic violence charges – was arrested last week by the U.S. Marshal’s Service and charged with trespassing for violating the order multiple times since the resolution was passed.
Messages left for Nambé Pueblo Gov. Phillip Perez this week and last week were not returned.
Considered a flight risk, Romero is currently housed at the Santa Fe County jail, but he’s scheduled to be released to La Pasada Halfway House in Albuquerque on Monday. His trial in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque is scheduled for Aug. 8. Though a misdemeanor, the trespassing charge carries a possible sentence of up to one year in federal prison.
But that could be construed as a light sentence when compared to banishment, which has been described by some as a “death sentence” for tribal members, stripping them of their cultural, spiritual and family ties. In modern times, it can also mean an individual loses out on his or her share of gaming revenues.
It’s worth noting that laws of the United States don’t include banishment as a punishment, not even in cases of high treason.
A growing trend
Banishment is not something taken lightly in Indian Country, said Steffani Cochran, an Albuquerque attorney specializing in Indian law and a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
“Typically, a tribe will exclude a violent criminal offender,” said Cochran, who wasn’t familiar with the Namb é case when contacted by the Journal this week. “It’s not something that’s ever willy-nilly; it’s an extreme measure to take. Sometimes it’s for a period of time, or it could be forever.”
Cochran said that, in her 25 years practicing Indian law in New Mexico, she can count on one hand the number of banishment cases she’s run across. But, elsewhere, tribes have been turning to it more and more, both for tribal and non-tribal members.
“It’s part of the larger picture of dealing with the more recent heroin and meth problems that have cropped up – an initial movement was to try to keep controlled substances from coming onto the reservation,” Cochran said. “The real big picture is that only recently have tribes gained jurisdiction under the Violence Against Women Act.”
An online search turns up dozens of instances of tribes using banishment in recent years.
Indian Country Today reported that, as of July 2014, the Fond du Lac Reservation in Minnesota banished or excluded (the term applied to non-tribal members) 77 people, almost all of them for violent crimes or drug activity, since July 2001. Forty-six of them were non-tribal members. The other 31, including three minors, were banished from the reservation, but retained their tribal membership.
One Feather, a Cherokee Nation-owned newspaper, last year published the names of 62 people banished from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina since 2000.
Most of them were outsiders banned for drug or sexual offenses, according to the report. The tribe justified cases of banishment “when necessary to protect the integrity and law and order on Tribal lands and territory or the welfare of its members.”
Similarly, the Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northern Wisconsin published on its website the names of the dozens of people it has banished.
Other media reports note that tribes in North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Michigan and Alaska have passed similar resolutions for the stated purpose of protecting tribal members.
One criticism of the practice is that banishing violent offenders and drug abusers only pushes the problem off the reservation and onto somebody else.
One New Mexico instance of banishment that gained media attention was the case of Tito Naranjo, a member of Santa Clara Pueblo married to a woman from Taos Pueblo. He was banished from Taos Pueblo after an essay he wrote about Taos Pueblo’s deer dance was published in a local newspaper in 2003.
Taos Pueblo said Naranjo, a professor of Native American studies at the University of New Mexico at Taos, was never given permission to write about the dance, traditionally performed at Christmas time, and had used it for personal gain. The pueblo’s order of exclusion stated that he had “caused irreparable harm to the sensible nature of the religious activity through exploitation.”
No notice required
The criminal complaint filed against Romero by the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Northern Pueblo Agency states that, on March 7, about a month after Nambé Pueblo’s tribal council passed the resolution to exclude him, he was found at a residence on County Road 84F within the pueblo’s boundaries, was presented with the banishment and exclusion order, and escorted off the reservation.
The resolution identified that address as the home of George Anaya. His relationship to Romero is not clear and efforts to reach Anaya by phone were unsuccessful.
However, jail records show that Romero’s wife, Jeanette, had been booked under the name Jeanette Anaya before they were married.
Romero was found at that same residence three times in April and each time was ordered to leave the pueblo, according to the complaint.
Then, on June 13, Romero’s wife’s sister called BIA to ask them to escort her to the same residence so she could pick up her 10-month-old nephew, apparently Romero’s son.
Steve Romero was holding the baby when law enforcement officials came to arrest him. He was taken into custody without incident.
Court records show that both Steve and Jeanette Romero have been arrested multiple times for a wide variety of offenses, including shoplifting and drug possession. A record from September of 2013 indicates Jeanette Romero filed for divorce, but the motion was denied in district court.
Steve Romero’s attorney said the denial could suggest the court didn’t have jurisdiction – that would have been the case if the two were married on tribal land.
Attorney L. Darlene Weed, assigned to represent Romero in the case last week, told the Journal she couldn’t say much about it.
“I’m still waiting for discovery for more details of the case,” said Weed, who added that she’s never handled a case quite like this one before. “Tribes have their own laws and it appears that banishment doesn’t require any notice.”
Weed said that Romero admitted to using heroin in the past and was on methadone at the time he was arrested.