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American Indian youth outnumber others in justice system

WASHINGTON. - American Indian youths, who represent 1 percent of the youth population in the United States, are arrested at double and triple the rate of other youths.

Arrests for motor vehicle theft and intoxication for American Indian youths 10 to17 are at 2 and 3 percent of the overall population.

"The difference between one and two percent might not seem very large," said David Doi, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

"The human reality, though, is quite staggering."

A coalition report entitled "Enlarging the Healing Circle: Ensuring Justice for American Indian Children" and released to Congress, governors, the U.S. Attorney General and tribal officials lists recommendations along with the statistics that could reduce youth crime among American Indians. Youth in the justice system was discussed for three days in Phoenix during a gathering of Justice Department officials, tribal leaders, youth, counselors and law enforcement officials.

Rick Thomas, a substance abuse counselor for the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska, said by the time a child on the reservation reaches the age of 9, he or she has buried three to five people close to them. He added that the despair this creates instigates a severe and persistent depression, which is "epidemic among youth living on reservations."

"American Indians, in spite of evidence to the contrary, are considered by much of the general public to be vanishing or settled, if they are considered at all. Ignoring the needs of American Indian youth and families is a national shame," the report said.

Why the statistics lean against American Indian youth remains a daunting question, but the report, while it ignores any racial indicators, puts the blame squarely on factors that come from family and community.

The three main reasons youth are incarcerated at such a high rate are substance abuse, depression and gang involvement. The report asserts those reasons can be prevented. Each issue can send a youth down a path to destruction, but each one works in a way that enhances the others, the report stated.

"Substance abuse, depression and gang involvement fuel a vast majority of the offenses for which American Indian juveniles are disproportionately confined," the report said.

Substance abuse is at the top of the list of offenses for which American Indian youths are arrested. Youths in the American Indian community make up 43 percent of the entire American Indian population while they are arrested for substance abuse at a rate twice that of all youths.

"They can be as young as eight or nine years old and have a drinking problem," said Dr. Wayne Mitchell from the IHS.

Alcohol fuels crime, not only in youths, but in adults as well. The report states that among youths, 49 percent of the crimes are involved with alcohol, among adults 71 percent of the time alcohol is involved.

One of the strongest contributing factors to foster criminal activity is depression, the study argues. Research verifies that many juveniles in trouble suffer from depression. Data suggested that 73 percent of the youths in facilities across the country suffered from some form of depression.

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Thomas told justice professionals that despair among youths is barely visible, but between the ages of 9 and 12, disillusionment with surroundings and future prospects can intensify, leading to psychological suicide.

"Psychological suicide is how we destroy ourselves with our minds," he said.

Thomas said if chronic depression is allowed to persist it can lead to physical suicide. The actual suicide rate among American Indian youths was nearly triple the rate of other groups from 1989 to 1991. American Indian and Alaska Native suicide rates for ages 15 to 24 was 37.5 per 100,000 versus 13.2 per 100,000 nationally.

The report was not clear about nor did it offer any solution to solving the problems of suicide and alcohol abuse, other than saying family and community involvement were important in the prevention of youth criminal activity.

Gang activity among American Indian youths has steadily increased over the years, but prevention and recovery from that membership is more positive, the report indicates. Little Dawn Star Wesaw, 23, a former member of the Bloods, said when she was a child she thought gang membership was cool and she received strength and material things. She told the justice gathering that she jumped in to the gang, which meant she voluntarily received physical and sexual abuse. She later jumped out with the result of physical beatings so severe she nearly died.

She returned to her Pima/Shoshone family, is engaged to be married to a former member of the Bloods, and travels the country lecturing for an organization called Dream Weavers Inc. The organization focuses on gang intervention.

Gang prevention emphasizes channeling frustrations into constructive free time and the avoidance of loneliness, the report said. Little Dawn Star was not from a reservation, but where she lived, there were little opportunities for future growth, she said.

Dream Weavers Inc. claims there are 113 American Indian gangs across the country. They now interact and create affiliations and branches through the Internet. The most effective method of prevention is to provide health alternatives to the gang lifestyle, officials said.

Living off the reservations is not the panacea for a healthy life either. Manne Lasiloo, 19, former president of the Akimel O'odham/Pee Posh Youth Council in Phoenix, Ariz., said urban living created cultural isolation, a major source of stress. She said the pressures of assimilation or the work needed to fit in to other cultures while separated from the American Indian culture, language and ceremonies creates an identity crisis, which leads to depression.

Brandon Ferguson, 17, who spent his first years on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and now lives in Chadron, Neb., said 40 miles can mean a lot to a young person. "A whole change of life occurs." Contrary to Lasiloo's observations of urban life, Ferguson said because of opportunities metropolitan areas offer with an open job market, higher education systems and prosperity, American Indian youths have better chances to succeed.

Those who attended the conference determined that people who planned to help American Indian youths must be knowledgeable about the urban and reservation life and the cultural differences each presents.

The report indicated that both settings have unique problems. Historically American Indian families were cohesive, loyal and a center of support for young and elderly. The historic family connection needs to be made, whether in urban or on reservation locations. Families worry about urban decay when not connected to the cultural base and learning about their heritage, and reservation families strive to prevent children from acquiring a sense of disillusionment and despair.

Where does the solution lie - the federal government, families, tribes?

The report indicates all three should be involved. The federal government continually short changes tribes with funding cuts for programs, the report said, but the need for government involvement remains.

Cynthia Mala, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, said federal government involvement was imperative to success in reducing youth crime among American Indians. She said those who oppose federal involvement "have to become cognizant of the political reality: We have to build a foundation of trust. The American public needs to learn about us."