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Is There Life After 30 on Indian Reservations?

I often write with respect of persons who have done much with their time, referring to them as “elders.” Some people deserve that respect, but others are just old. Out of luck or because they took no risks, they are still sucking air. Good, but that does not mean we oldsters no longer owe our air tax or that we are somehow more important than our children.

To the extent we’ve had good lives, we are the aspirations of our ancestors. We lived as we lived because they birthed us, fed us, educated us, gave us reason to be who we are.

What will our children have to say about us?

This rant is set off by hearing that gang members have put the son of a friend of mine who lives on a rez in the hospital. What have we come to when our children are joining criminal gangs?

I watched the predictable reactions. Kick them off the rez. Lock them up. They are nothing but thugs.

Nothing but thugs? They are us. Were they born that way? If not, how did they get that way?

That rez, like many others, has an unemployment rate that would take your breath away. More people are not working than are.

There is manifestly much work to be done. Trash to be moved. Home repairs--many needed by elders. The infrastructure barely deserves the name.

So the problem is not that there is no useful work to be done. The problem is there's no way to get paid for doing it.

This is not my tribe, so I can't speak to what is traditional. Thinking from your own tribal traditions,is there a way across that gap? If there is not, how do we justify keeping kids on the rez? Is it because leaving to find work will mean a loss of culture?

Kids need to be something besides busy, but busy is a minimum. They need to be of use. They need to feel in their bones that they are of use, that they are important. If they are not important to their nuclear family, extended family, clan, tribe---then they are not going to be important to themselves.

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If they are not needed, if they are not useful, if they have no role that matters, then what is the use to living?

What follows from being of no use is quick suicide or the slow suicide of alcohol and drugs—and no regard for the lives of others because they have no regard for their own. This is not opinion. This is arithmetic, expressed in suicide rates, rates of alcoholism and drug abuse, and homicide rates.

Some of the dominant culture got this message when enough people reported asking inner city kids, mostly black: "Where do you expect to be at age 30?" That none of them expected to be alive at age 30 was shocking enough to motivate some adults in some cities to get to work.

So, where does a kid on your rez expect to be at age 30?

The goals are not that important in themselves. If you want to be a master carpenter, a nurse, a nerd of some kind or a skilled craftsperson—then the problem is how to get from where you are to there. With few resources, getting from where you are to where you want to be can be a scary problem.

But if you have no goal, that is a bigger, harder, meaner problem.

It’s not a problem that can be solved by an application of force. This talk of throwing young people off the rez begs the question, which is how to give them a reason to be. On the rez; off the rez; just to be.

I am not persuaded that it takes money to solve it or that money can solve it at all. But, it certainly takes organization. It's not a one-person job, but it has to start somewhere. You have people in tribal government who know enough about organization to win an election. If they don’t know enough about organization to build social capital, if they think the answer is to lock young people up or send them away, then ask them what they hope for the community when all the bad kids are locked up or sent away?

Maybe those who would ask the kids where they expect to be fifteen years down the road, when they are 30, should be asking where they expect the tribe to be in 15 years? Or five?

Criminal gang culture does not catch on where a more hopeful culture is thriving. If our children are nothing but thugs, what does that make us?

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.