Gangs are everywhere in Indian Country and tribal leaders wonder if the community and culture have lost their powers.
I recall my surprise at hearing hard-core rap music blaring from a reservation radio station as I drove through the rolling hills of the Dakotas several years ago. It seemed so incongruous to hear the music’s references to urban violence, drug use and gangs in a place so seemingly removed from that world.
On today’s reservations, however, gang culture (including dress, music and behavior) is growing in popularity with young people. Seeing a group of Indian kids dressed in baggy pants and “do-rags” (handkerchief head covering) lounging around the prairie seems almost laughable until I hear the stories of senseless violence committed by these kids. Like so many other disenfranchised youth in America, reservation kids are also drawn to the provocative gang culture and its associated violence.
Lately, violence in Indian Country has drawn the attention of lawmakers. As part of the Obama administration’s efforts to address crime on reservations, officials from the Justice Department have spent the past two months touring Indian communities and reservations meeting with tribal leadership and law enforcement officials to coordinate action on crime in Indian Country. The Justice Department reports that violent crime on reservations is two to three times the national average. Much of this crime is related to gang activity.
Last week the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved the Tribal Law and Order Act, which was amended to reflect concerns raised by the Department of Justice about the large number of cases it has declined to prosecute in Indian Country. In August, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs also convened an Oversight Committee to Examine the Increase of Gang Activity in Indian Country.
Reservation residents blame families who have returned to the reservation from the city, bringing gang culture with them. The gangster look and lifestyle have been quickly embraced by many reservation youth. Community leaders like John Mousseau, Oglala, Chairman of the Pine Ridge Tribal Judiciary Committee in South Dakota, say that gangs found especially fertile ground among Indian kids who are often disaffected and hungry for direction. Early on, much of the gang culture in Indian Country was populated with “wannabes,” kids in baggy pants who engaged in petty crimes and vandalism. More recently, however, violence and drug trafficking have escalated drastically.
As the gang mentality has become more prevalent in Indian Country, organized gangs with leadership in urban areas have exploited the unique characteristics of the reservation. Remote, rural communities with very limited law enforcement resources provide good cover for drug dealing operations. The complex maze of jurisdictional challenges to prosecuting crimes in Indian Country is an added incentive to such organizations — not to mention an often-eager population of potential customers.
In his comments to the Oversight Committee to Examine the Increase in Gang Activity in Indian Country, Mousseau noted that his community logged 8,815 gang related police calls in 2008. He estimates that there are at least 5,000 gang members among the 50,000 people living on Pine Ridge. Although he expressed gratitude for a $125,000 increase from the Bureau of Indian Affairs for law enforcement on Pine Ridge, he said, apologetically, that it was simply not enough money. “We need more officers and we need them now. We have 45,000 scared, law-abiding citizens who I am sworn to protect,” he said.
The small increase, he lamented, will not go very far in doing this.
With varying intensity, this scenario pervades throughout Indian Country. Leaders are calling for support to expand in school and after school activities for at-risk youth that integrate traditional tribal ways and culture.
Returning to traditional values and activities may not be enough, notes journalist Mark Anthony Rolo, Bad River Ojibwe. Rolo is currently working on a documentary film about gangs in Indian Country, “Breaking the Circle: The Threat of Gangs in Indian Country.” Inspired by media reports about gangs on the reservation, Rolo seeks to tell the story of Indian gangs from an Indian perspective. As Rolo has interviewed gang members and their families, he says covering this story has been one of the most challenging of his career.
“The battle to keep a new Native generation from joining gangs is incredibly complex and intense. And not surprisingly, real solutions are hard to find,” he says.
He takes note of the current message playing in Indian Country that says a return to our original cultures, traditions and way of life is critical to ending inter-generational trauma and breaking cycles of abuse.
But how, he asks, do you respond to a Native teen gang member who says he sings at the drum by day and gangbangs at night?
Rolo maintains that perhaps our traditional cultures no longer have the weight and power they once did to influence a generation of youth who are way too assimilated into mainstream American culture.
He says that maybe Indians have overlooked something when we talk about tribal cultures. Could it be that passing on Indian tradition begins with building community, that an investment in recreating community will strengthen our connection to culture, traditions and spirituality? Community as culture. Could this be a viable solution, he asks? He concludes that it is most certainly a discussion worth having in Indian Country.