ANADARKO, Okla. - Many communities throughout the United States have the symptoms of suffering from ''gangster'' activity - cryptic graffiti on public buildings, a rise in juvenile crime and youth forming a ''family'' based around the wearing of similar colors of clothing.
Yet many still dismiss gang activity as either inner-city problems or as the actions of ''wannabe gangstas,'' without acknowledging the reality of gangs in smaller, more rural towns or in Indian communities.
One individual who has seen a rise in gang involvement in Native communities is Christopher Grant, a retired commander of the Rapid City, S.D.-area gang task force. Grant now works as a consultant to tribal communities on what he refers to as ''gangster mentality.'' Grant said the gangster mentality is ''much more prevalent than it was even five years ago and growing in many tribal communities,'' he said. ''Again, it depends on where you're located. There are tribal communities that still have very little or no gang activity, while others are struggling with it every day.''
The areas of Indian country most affected by gangs, according to Grant, mostly include the Midwest, Northwest and Southwest, with gang activity rising in the Northeast, Southeast ''and very definitely in Oklahoma,'' he said.
Grant said that the major community factors for those who join gangs include high degrees of poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, limited law enforcement and a denial that gangs exist. But the most important factor as to why young people join gangs is a lack of parental involvement.
''I always say that the great majority of people who are gang-involved are good people making bad choices for themselves,'' Grant said. ''Often, they're looking for a sense of belonging, acceptance, love and attention. The gang life offers that, but in a false way. Also in Indian country, many of the young people involved in gang activity are looking for a sense of identity. Many of them are disconnected from their traditional culture, and they're embracing instead the gang subculture.''
The most common ages in which youth join gangs range from 12 to 19, but younger and older members are not uncommon. One of the different individual factors as to how youth join gangs includes the influence of prison gangs, where an individual is sent to prison or a juvenile detention center and comes out with gang connections. Another influence is from the media, which includes gangster rap music, television, motion pictures and interactive media. A third influence is what Grant refers to as ''urban influence,'' where a tribal member moves to a large urban area and returns to a tribal community as a gangster, bringing the gangster lifestyle back with him. A fourth influence is gang activity within individual families, where an older brother, sister or cousin is a gang member.
Signs that a family member is in a gang include unusual writings or symbols, unexplainable bodily injury such as when someone is initiated or ''jumped in'' as a gang member, a new hatred or fear of law enforcement, violent and anti-social attitude or the claiming of a gang name, clothing and body markings.
One Indian community that has seen a steady rise of gang involvement over the past two years is Anadarko, a city that is a part of seven overlapping tribal jurisdictions: Kiowa, Comanche, Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, Fort Sill Apache, Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, Caddo and Western Delaware. One officer that has been observing the rise of gang activity in Anadarko is Sgt. Dwaine Miller of the Anadarko Police Department. Miller has identified 10 - 20 groups or ''sets'' of gangs, with most of the current violent activity being from sets of ''Blood'' gang members. Miller said crimes that can be attributed to gang activity in Anadarko include home and auto burglaries and vandalism. But what is most disturbing is that out of five homicides in an 18-month period, three of them are gang-related.
Miller said that the Anadarko Police Department doesn't have the manpower to deal with gang activity on the level that's needed, with the understaffed force needing occasional assistance from the Caddo County Sheriff's Department and BIA police forces. One thing that Miller mentioned that would reduce the problem is for youth to have more things to do.
''There's nothing for anybody to do around here,'' Miller said. ''Kids have nothing to do but to go to a movie. That's about it, besides walk the streets and get in trouble. There's a skate park, and that keeps some of them busy. That's about it. Activities would go a long way. I don't think that's the answer - that's a start.''
One approach that is used by Caddo County Sheriff's Department and BIA police is education junior high school students through the nationally recognized GREAT program - Gang Resistance Education and Training. BIA officer and Comanche tribal member Kevin Pohawpatchoko is a lecturer within this program, where he teaches a 12-week course at Anadarko Middle School and the BIA Riverside Indian School.
According to Pohawpatchoko, gang activity in Anadarko is limited primarily to within its city limits, where gang-related crimes include baseball-bat assaults and drive-by shootings, with Anadarko's gang-related crime at its highest point during the weeklong American Indian Exposition in August. In addition to the youth within Anadarko, Pohawpatchoko also said that some of the students that come from other reservations to Riverside Indian School claim gang membership or association.
Out of the three law enforcement members that spoke with Indian Country Today, the consensus for combating gangs is a combination of family and community involvement.
''People don't want to admit there's a problem,'' Pohawpatchoko said. ''When it gets too far to where people are getting killed - drive-by shootings and stabbings - they're going to be turning around and looking for somewhere to point to. The problem's here. You've got to face up to it and you've got to meet it face-to-face and try to resolve this thing. Community effort is the big thing. If it gets out of hand, we're going to be in prison ourselves. We'll be afraid to even go outside. Every house around here will have steel bars on it. That's how bad it's going to be. Communities have to face up to it and say, 'Yes we do have a problem, but we have to fight, and we can win.'''