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Gangs Are an Epidemic in Indian Country—But They Can Be Stopped

Story about the epidemic of American Indian gangs.

Call him D.

When D was 7 years old, he says he was taught the correct way to “cook crack and bag up weed.” By the time he was 9, he was initiated into the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation (ALKQN), an American Indian gang on the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation (LCOR) in Wisconsin. D says he wanted to follow in the footsteps of some of his family members, including several of his brothers and cousins. So he joined the ALKQN.

It wasn’t long before he witnessed his first murder. “It was pretty crazy,” D says. “I was in shock a little bit. I was only 10 years old and this dude got shot in the head right in front of me. It was pretty ugly. He was twitching and shit—I still remember it to this day. But I had to make like I wasn’t scared.”

Even as a 10-year-old, D says there was no room in gang life for vulnerability, but admits that he regularly questioned his actions and lifestyle. “Sometimes when bad things happen and you are in your alone spot and your soft side comes, you start thinking, ‘Shit, Native people are killing each other,’ and I think to myself, ‘Why are you doing this?’?”

D says he is the most tattooed Native gang member of the 18th Chapter South Side of the ALKQN and possibly on the entire LCOR. With tattoos of an l and k on his hands, and large crowns on his neck, back and chest and a miscellany of other tattoos, D believes he is never going straight, never could go straight.

D’s stepfather, BB, agrees. At 36, BB is part of ALKQN’s older generation, and he has seen many stabbings, beatings and killings. Of the gang life he and D have chosen, he says simply, “You never get out of it.”

Rezzed Out
Nearly 800 miles west of the LCOR, an 18-year-old JB wonders if digging a ditch in blistering heat is what he wants to do with the rest of his life. He answers, No fucking way, and gets himself fired. Having recently left behind his gangster life as the founder of the Old Crazy Horse Crips, a Native gang on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, JB intends to focus on his music while looking for a better job. He is determined to get away from Native gang life.

On a reservation where approximately 80 percent of residents are unemployed, 49 percent live below the federal poverty line and the per capita income is a little more than $6,000, JB says the lack of opportunity is the reason so many Native youth turn to bangin’.

“I think the reason kids get started in gangs is that there isn’t shit to do,” he says. “There is a Boys and Girls Club, but you have to have a membership or something, and its way out of town. In order to get there you have to walk along the main highway and a lot of people have been hit by cars on that highway. They are building a sidewalk now, but I doubt it is going to do anything because everybody is already too far gone.”

JB says people on the Pine Ridge Reservation are “rezzed out.” He explains: “There’s just this mentality of: Everyone’s hanging around, everyone’s doing the same things and saying the same words. Everyone always says, ‘That motherfucker is rezzed out.’?”

“We were all just born into [gang life],” he says. “As far back as I can remember as a little kid, all my brothers and cousins, everybody used to bang. I lived between two gangs. One lived up the street the other lived down the street—there’s probably 100 boys up there and 100 boys down there—and they would get it on right in my alley. I remember being a little kid just playing basketball, and I saw a bunch of rocks thrown into my backyard and suddenly there was a bunch of boys just getting all ready to wreck each other.

“There was another gang down the street; there was a gun battle and shootouts, and this one crew down the street, their homeboy got his brains blown out. People just got crazy and started shooting everyone’s houses up.

“That is just the shit I saw all my life,” he says.

The Gangs Are All Here…And There…
Lamar Associates, a Native-owned law-enforcement and security consulting firm in Albuquerque headed by Walter Lamar, Blackfeet Nation of Montana and Wichita Tribe of Oklahoma, conducted an informal survey regarding gangs in Indian country utilizing 3,450 contacts in national tribal territories.
The results of the survey indicate that out of the 84.8 percent of respondents who lived or worked in a tribal community, 76.1 percent indicated there was a presence of Native gangs in their area. Additionally, 48.1 percent cited presence of female gangs and 45.2 percent said they knew of a violent gang incident or incidents involving gang members, including drug sales, burglary, robbery and assault.

Raymond Perales, Arapaho, the director of juvenile justice services at Lamar Associates, has more than 22 years of experience dealing with public safety, Indian affairs, the U.S. Department of Justice and juvenile Native gangs. Perales, who has studied and written about the subject of Native youth gangs since the early 1990s, when he was a police officer on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana says, “Gangs offer a sense of belonging or family. Where there is a lack of cultural identity or knowledge, gangs fill the role and offer everything from names, symbols, rituals, pride and language. But obviously in this instance, in a negative purpose.”

Perales says a lack of positive family structure is what contributes to the prevalence and necessity for gangs on reservations. “As to the sense of

belonging or family structure, gangs are offering protection, accountability, discipline, food, clothing and a hierarchy of authority. There is a need for young people to form a sense of identity and a sense of family and a sense of support that in many cases is just not present at home.”

In a society where most Native people were pushed off of their tribal lands and systematically cut off from any sort of cultural identity, Perales says reservation life today creates a perfect environment for gangs to thrive, “Native youth are fertile ground for gangs. Particularly because in this day and age of technology, many young people have come to believe that traditional values are irrelevant to their lives. Many of these youth have lost their language and culture. They are the product of ‘multiple marginalization,’ which means that when young people are pushed out to the margins of society, without ways to meaningfully participate in social life, and when they come from broken or dysfunctional families and communities, they tend to associate with gangs for several reasons—for income, recreation, protection, identity and most of all, to have the family they do not have at home.”

When gangs started on reservations, Perales says that the need to be recognized was so dire that in some instances Native gangs took on the names of established black or Latin gangs in order to obtain instant notoriety and credibility. “In the early 1990s, most Native youth identified with Black or Latin gangs that were predominately presented in the media. They adopted names like the Insane Gangster Disciple Nation—adopted from the Gangster Disciples of Chicago, or Los Vatos Locos, a Latin gang in the Southwest and California. In later years, as they evolved, you began to see more Native-oriented names appear, such as Native Gangster Bloods, Native Mob, Native Gangster Crips, Native Gangster Disciples, etc. Gang structures also formed with unique names, i.e., the Boyz, Odd Squad, Red Nation Klique, et cetera, but the usual trend is to claim affiliation with a nationally recognized gang for the instant name recognition.”

Perales says Native gangs should be considered hybrid gangs, which he describes as gang members that mix-and-match symbols, graffiti, colors and names to develop their own distinct Native gang identity. He says these gangs also incorporate tribal symbols or Native themes from their tribe or area.
He says certain elements of tribal gang lifestyle might even be vaguely similar to traditional Native culture, such as marking turf and marking trails, or how “jumping in,” in which new gang members are beaten by a group to prove their toughness, their bravery, as a sort of ritual to manhood. Again, an association that is not positive.

Even though D is in a Native gang that took on the name of a Latin American gang, he does not in any way, shape or form consider himself a member of a “hybrid” gang. “They say that the colors for the Latin Kings are black and gold, but the colors for us are black and gold and red. Black represents the night, yellow represents the sun and red represents the blood that you shed for your ground.”

JB addressed a similar bit of “borrowing” in the American Indian gang culture: why gang members often referred to each other as “nigga.” “I don’t know,” he says. “I know that a lot of guys say they use the term nigga because back in the day, white people called us ‘prairie niggers.’ That is one thing I always asked everyone—‘Why do you say nigga—we’re not black.’ And they would say, ‘Because I’m a fuckin’ prairie nigger.’?”

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Who’ll Stop the Bangin’?
“We have a generation of young people who have become emotionally disassociated from their family, clans and communities,” Perales says, “and have become desensitized to violence and death. Parents and grandparents are no longer teaching the lessons needed to survive, and to negotiate the difficult path from childhood to adulthood.”

According to D, stopping gang violence is a daunting challenge. “Ninety percent of our reservation is gang-related; 80 percent are pot dealers, 80 percent smoke pot and 98 percent drink liquor. A cop is going by my house right now. The only solution to stop gang violence is if everyone came home to us, joined our gang. There is nothing else I can say other than if we were to become one big gang.”

JB thinks there might be a solution. “Maybe we need to call a big gang meeting in order to help each other instead of killing each other off. I’d like to call every gang in Pine Ridge together and start our own army. I would tell them, If you want money, then work an honest living. We could create an army with all the Natives that want to bang—we could all be one instead of killing each other. We could have boxing tournaments—if people want to fight, just put on gloves. We could be a strong nation.”

Perales says there are several factors in stopping the proliferation of gangs in Indian country. “First and foremost we have to find alternative activities for young people, particularly after school. We don’t have adequate playgrounds, and a lot of these kids have younger brothers and sisters who are following their siblings into gangs. I cannot tell you how many young people I talk to who say, ‘I am bored!’ I really believe you need to fill a young person’s time.”

Additionally, Perales says communities would do well to implement activities and workshops that encourage out-of-the-box thinking, and environments for positive social interaction. He offers as an example a group of high school students that came together to create a series of videos on YouTube called “Reservation Realities.”

“We got professional videographers to help them, Perales says. “We developed a series of videos written and directed, scripted and filmed by young people. When they were given the ability to talk about their message and to talk about what they thought, the results were amazing.

“They talked about not being in gangs. They talked about school, which became a safe place for them because home was oftentimes a prison. When you give kids the ability to put their energy into something other than sitting around and drinking and drugging, they will do it and their creativity is amazing.”

Perales also emphasizes the importance of tribal action committees to enforce policies. “Communities need to take a look at their current ordinances, laws and policies and school policies as they relate to gang activity and behavior and they need to come up with some sort of compliance-type things or sanctions to help to control gang behavior. You have to make a commitment to enforce them. The bottom line: The community has to send the message that this is not what we want. We will not tolerate it. If a gang places graffiti on a wall and you do not take it down, then you are telling the gang, ‘We accept you.’

“The good news is that we can have an impact on gangs within our communities,” Perales says. “We must strategically plan our prevention activities, identify what resources we have to intervene once a young person gets in a gang and wants to get out, and what mechanisms of enforcement, suppression or control over gang behavior exist, or are needed. “We can reduce or eliminate gangs—one member at a time.”

The Good Gangster
Though D and JB both boast about their experiences as Native gang members, it doesn’t take much prodding to get them to admit that the thug life has a drastic downside. “Things are changing—all of the older brothers that are locked up now in prison, they are all getting out pretty soon,” says D. “I don’t sit and preach to my little brother. I don’t say I want you to be in this gang stuff. I don’t want him to be in this shit, I don’t want him to follow my tracks. I want a better life for him. I try to tell him that, but he always tells me, ‘I want to be like you.’?”

Today, D says he tries to keep out of trouble by working. “It’s not hard to find labor jobs. I’m kind of like a ‘good’ gangster. I just take care of my little brother and my mom.”

JB says he has pretty much left the gang life behind. He says he’s going to work on his music and he is not afraid of anything because he now has everything he needs. “Nothing really matters. I got my lungs and the air; I got the people I love. That’s all that matters to me.”

For Vincent Schilling's story of a girl who left behind the gang life to become a success, click here.


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