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Gangs in Indian country

Niso Frank Caywood works toward a solution

PORTLAND, Ore. - Before putting on a seminar at a reservation, Niso Frank Caywood, Cree, hangs out on some of its toughest streets getting to know local teens because he believes it;s the best way to start working on a solution to Native gangs that have infected Indian country.

His black hair pulled tight in two braids tipped with leather ties, he has met thousands of gang members and the frightened tribal members who are trying to rid their reservations of the disillusioned youth that often know little about their culture.

Many adults are preoccupied with blame and eliminating the gangs rather than trying to take back their youth, said Caywood, who moved around a lot in his youth because his dad was a Marine.

A Portland resident for 15 years, the 49-year-old Caywood is a nine-year trainer/consultant for Native American Homeland Security and the federal Community Oriented Policing Services program.

Caywood is the program manager for the Striving Together to Achieve Rewarding Tomorrows, a substance abuse project operated by Neighborhood Houses Inc. in three high-risk Portland schools whose goal is keeping high-risk 8- to 13-year-olds away from drugs, alcohol and crime.

For nine years, Caywood has given gang workshops at more than 350 tribes, including one June 4 and 5 at the North Sound Tribal Mental Health Conference in Bow, Wash. He's also worked with youth in California's inner-city gangs and assisted a federal gang task force.

He often travels with former Portland gang member Glenn Lamotte, 28.

The product of alcoholic ancestors and a broken home, he knew little about his heritage, was called stupid by teachers and expelled from every school. Lamotte was seemingly destined for a life of crime.

He was only 17 when he started a three-year prison term that literally ''saved my life.'' Angry and disillusioned with everything, Lamotte's new life began when spirits spoke to him as he started weekly sweats while incarcerated.

''I crawled in [the prison sweat lodge] - they put water on the stones and since then I have never been the same. I don't know how I lived before that day. It was like I was given a second chance for everything.''

Lamotte, whose roots are in the southern Mississippi Choctaw Nation, has spent the last eight years trying to help teens, including most recently as a youth gang prevention specialist for Native American Youth Association Family Center in Portland. He credits his turnaround to wise advice from elders who cared and the big break from Caywood.

''I chose to do something different because that's what felt good to me - that's what the spirits told me to do,'' Lamotte said.

An outspoken opponent of ''gang 101'' lectures that only spotlight the problem, Caywood discusses constructive solutions and encourages adults to reach out to troubled youth instead of plotting ways to drive them off the reservation or into jail.

Caywood said reasons for gang popularity vary as widely as the nations themselves. He's talked with gangs on rich and poor reservations and where heritage is a priority.

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Reasons for gang success include ''families returning to the reservation from a metropolitan city, lack of supervision and care, and living near a gang-infected city,'' said the former career orientation, cultural diversity and social studies teacher for a Job Corps high school in Reno, Nev.

Among numerous reasons Native teens join gangs are fragmented families, abuse, depression-generated apathy and pressure to assimilate into modern society, Caywood said.

Gangs are a ''symptom of a larger problem,'' he said, adding that reservation gangs fill a cultural void by providing a sense of belonging and initiations similar to tribal rights of passage.

While not coddling or making excuses for gangs, he said gang members are often the latest victims in a vicious circle of child abuse that started with their parents.

Abuse begets abuse. Victims become perpetrators often addicted to alcohol and drugs. While Caywood has some sympathy for gang members, he ''draws the line'' at violent crimes like murder and rape.

Youths tempted to join gangs need other fulfillment including physical challenges, mental inspiration and spiritual stability.

''Native teens are selling their souls to assimilate into materialism like videos, cars and TVs,'' Caywood said. ''They want to be famous; they want to be recognized.''

For many reasons, including America's notorious boarding school era, some tribes have lost their customs and can't find elders who remember the old ways.

''We've always been taught our culture and belief systems are wrong - don't drum, don't dance and don't sing,'' Caywood said. ''A lot of the Navajo kids don't know their language, or the healing songs and healing ways that all Pueblo tribes practice. These are the kids that are in the gangs.''

Some Native gangs have roots in prisons with disproportionately large minority populations.

While prison is a temporary fix, Caywood believes that Native inmates are ''getting their education from the real gangs.''

''All it takes is a charismatic leader who will unite some heavy duty gangs on reservation - then you will really start seeing a problem.

''Our relations returning home from serving prison time'' will be ''a major influence'' that's ''vital to the increase and existence of gangs in Indian country.''

Lately, Native girls are starting gangs, said Caywood, who expects an increase in imprisoned females.

''In my last four to five trainings, I found it's the females that are fighting, uniting and forming gangs. Nobody is taking that seriously - they had tattoos and are more established than the boys.'' And teen girls are facing ''that demand of being pretty and having material things.''

Caywood said reservation leaders and the community must work on solutions with input from teens if they expect to stop youth interest in gangs.