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For the kids' sake

Wisconsin tribes look to save youth from negative influences

KESHENA, Wis. - Wisconsin's eight tribal police departments are cracking down on gang activity, and all 11 of the state's reservations are starting a new project to remove children from homes where drugs are used, sold or manufactured.

The goal is a multi-faceted approach to save Wisconsin Native youth from drugs and other negative influences, like the criminal gangs that are actively recruiting across Indian country and which often fill a cultural void.

At least four gangs have infiltrated about half of Wisconsin's reservations. Tribal gangs are a problem in nearby states including North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.

The gang crackdown is ''taking off and running now,'' said Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin Police Chief Mark Waukau.

''We have cases going through the task force and we are taking a stand here and will be working on executing a lot of warrants and doing undercover work.''

All Wisconsin tribes have teamed with the Wisconsin Alliance for Drug Endangered Children (WIDEC). Wisconsin's eight tribal police departments are sharing information with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies through the Native American Drug and Gang Initiative.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice's Department of Criminal Investigation and NADGI are helping tribes profile ''gang activities on our respective reservations,'' Waukau said.

While gangs are a huge focus, WIDEC is coordinating a new project to identify Native children in non-gang environments like homes and guardians in a team effort with tribal and state police, social service agencies, health care providers, teachers and others.

''I think it's fantastic,'' said Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Police Chief Bill Morrow, who knows firsthand the violence that drugs and gangs bring to Indian country.

A murder on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation eventually led to 47 federal drug indictments in 2005 involving tribe and gang members.

''It started off with a gang-related homicide,'' Morrow said.

From prison, Native inmates have sent word to area youth stating ''don't do what I did and end up'' behind bars, he said.

In recent years, Morrow's officers ''have responded to shots fired and [gang-related] beatings.''

''One person was standing in the window [at his home] and the bullet just missed him. Things were getting out of hand and then slowed down some after the indictments, but [gang-related incidents] are on the rise here again.''

Gangs brought in drugs from Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Eau Claire.

''The Native Mob and Latin Kings were big here before,'' he said.

The indictments resulted from ''information sharing'' with the Sawyer County Sheriff's Department and state and federal law enforcement agencies.

One expert believes that drugs and gangs are symptoms of a bigger crisis on reservations - the absence of cultural values.

''Materialism has replaced culture, heritage and spiritualism,'' said Niso Frank Caywood, Cree, of Portland, Ore., who has given gang workshops at more than 350 tribes over the past 20 years.

Caywood said reasons for gang and drug infiltration across Indian country vary as widely as the nations themselves, whether rich, poor or culturally strong.

Reasons can include disrespect for adults, single-parent homes, feelings of low self-worth, abuse, depression, assimilation into pop culture and even handing youth large amounts of ''casino cash'' without a plan or direction. Youth are attracted to gangs that are filling a void by emulating Native initiation rites and traditional passages that provide cultural identity.

Tribal elders must concentrate on heritage and solving the reasons that gangs are popular instead of wasting time on blame, he said, adding that he opposes ''gang 101'' lectures that merely highlight the problem and don't include youth in solutions.

''Tribes have to bring back the culture,'' Caywood said. ''Who is going to teach the songs and the rites of passage? One of the struggles is finding an elder who can teach these things.''

Minorities are a disproportionately large segment of the prison system, especially American Indians in states like South Dakota, he said, comparing a powerful Native prison gang to the infamous Mexican Mafia.

''Police are only a part of the tool,'' according to Morrow.

''We can't do the whole thing. The more people you get involved to get the children the help they need is fantastic. ... The big thing is getting the communication going back and forth both ways.

''I wish I had staffing to investigate the gangs; in the past we just responded call to call. We had been reactive more than proactive. And a lot of people are afraid to speak out due to retaliation. ...

''We are hoping with NADGI we can pull [investigators] in from other areas. The big thing is getting the education and information flowing both ways.''

In recent months, tribal police ''have been focused on the drugs and the gangs,'' Waukau said.

Gangs ''bounce back and forth'' between reservations and have roots in bigger cities like Minneapolis, Chicago and Green Bay, he said. The gangs ''bring that 'street smarts' stuff into reservations'' and are difficult to track without a coordinated effort.

MITW police are making friends with youth through an effort similar to the federal COPS project, including a three-on-three basketball program.

''We are proactive at our community to change that stereotypical attitude that all cops do is throw people in jail,'' Waukau said. ''The more the young kids see us, they open up and realize we are friends.''

The MITW tribal school is effectively teaching youth about their culture and heritage ''to keep kids from being involved in gangs and doing negative things in the community.''

The tribal chiefs hope cooperation among WIDEC, NADGI, law enforcement agencies and social services will help turn the corner on gang influence and drugs on Wisconsin reservations.