Tribal elders in a fishing village in south-east Alaska are to decide this week whether to dispatch two 17-year-old boys to separate uninhabited islands for a year, equipped only with a limited amount of food and tools, as punishment for a violent robbery.
In the first case of its kind in the United States, the youths, both Tlingits, have been handed over to their tribe by an American judge who was reluctant to jail them under mandatory sentencing laws.
The two, Simon Roberts and Adrian Guthrie, have admitted stealing dollars 40 ( pounds 25) from a pizza deliveryman and hitting him over the head with a baseball bat, during a visit to the north-western state of Washington last year. Roberts (who wielded the bat) faces up to five-and-a-half years in jail, while Guthrie could be sentenced to a maximum of 41 months. Instead, James Allendoerfer, a Superior Court judge in Washington's Snohomish County, agreed to allow them to return to their remote home village of Klawock, on Prince of Wales Island, where a council of elders, dressed in tribal regalia, will convene to decide their fate on Thursday.
Last week the pair were released from county jail into the custody of two Tlingit security guards who had come to escort them on the 800-mile journey back to their fishing community.
Before releasing them, Judge Allendoerfer conducted an investigation into the conditions the boys would face during their island sojourn, and the degree to which they would be monitored. They have been ordered to return to his court for sentencing in 18 months, when they may escape jail terms if he feels their banishment has done them any good. State law allows the judge to set aside mandatory penalties under 'special circumstances' - although, in this case, this is bitterly disputed by prosecutors.
Bill Jaquette, Guthrie's state-funded lawyer, believes the tribe does not have many choices other than to banish the boys. 'Most of the other traditional punishments are pretty radical, like chopping off limbs, and staking people to the beach at low tide. Of course, there is the option of shunning them . . . But their crime is too serious for that.'
Details of their endurance test have yet to be finalised, but the boys are expected to receive some survival training. They will have a limited number of tools - 'bows, arrows, knives, but no guns,' said Jaquette - and enough food to last two weeks. Their likely destination will be one of the thousands of small, heavily forested islands of south-east Alaska, populated by bear and deer.
After their supplies are exhausted, they will have to fend for themselves, fishing, hunting and clam-digging. Although the climate is mild compared with Alaska's Arctic reaches, the winters are snowy and punctuated by fierce storms. And there are up to 200 inches of rain a year in some areas.
The judge's decision followed intense lobbying by an Indian tribal judge, Rudy James, who is a member of a different tribe - the Kuy'di Kuiu Kwaan Tlingits - but who has taken up the case.
He has said banishment is mandatory under Indian traditional law for an offence of such severity, and would compel the boys to atone for their crimes and cleanse their spirits. The boys would be visited at regular intervals. 'We won't let them die,' he said.
Meanwhile, the tribe is planning to compensate the deliveryman, who suffered permanent vision and hearing damage, with a dollars 150,000 house and medical expenses. 'In our society no individual stands by themselves,' Mr James said. 'In glory, the whole tribe is with them. And also in shame.'
The boys have said they would be far happier to be banished to an island than locked up. They believe they have the necessary survival skills, having been brought up - like many of Alaska's 14,000 Tlingits (pronounced Kling-it) - in a fishing and logging village where most people know how to fish and hunt. 'We have been raised our whole lives living off the land, knowing what to eat and what not to eat,' Roberts said, 'I feel confident I can survive.'
But others are far less enthusiastic. In Washington, prosecutors have complained that the judge has set a dangerous precedent by treating defendants differently because of their ethnic origins. They plan to appeal. Moreover, they are concerned that the boys will simply flee, although the Tlingits have put up a dollars 25,000 bond.
Some Indians have challenged the tribal council's legitimacy, pointing out that it is not recognised by the US federal government. Alaska state officials have angrily observed that refusing minors shelter is illegal, although they have not announced any intention to intervene. And several anthropologists have said banishment was never practised among the Tlingit Indians because it would have been tantamount to a death penalty - a claim that Mr James vigorously contests.
In 1979, Frank Brown, a Bella Bella Kwakiutl Indian, was handed over to tribal elders after a court in Canada convicted him of robbery. After spending eight months on an island, Brown returned to go to college, and went on to become a much-admired canoe-maker.