WASHINGTON – It’s high time to take a stand against tribal gangs – and the help of Congress is desperately needed – according to several Native American leaders who note there are growing problems of crime and rape on reservations.
The concerns were spotlighted in detail during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, held July 30. Four witnesses recounted tales of increased tribal gang activity to a packed hearing room – a room that included the newest SCIA member, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
Oglala Sioux Tribe council member Hermis John Mousseau testified that there were three gang-related shootings and incidents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the last month.
He said the issue was highly personal. A former tribal officer, in 2003 he was wounded in the line of duty by a tribal gang member when he was called to address a domestic disturbance.
“During that incident, I was forced to shoot that individual and memories like that stay with you forever,” Mousseau testified. “To this day, I can still remember the sound of that gun.”
His tribe has counted at least 39 gangs on the reservation, but has only 12 officers on duty at a time to patrol the vast 2.7 million acre reservation.
Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation council member Brian Nissen said gang activity has led to routine assaults between rival gangs, as well as violence against women and rapes.
He testified that his brother was once involved in gang activities, but has improved his life with the help of family and friends and recently graduated from college.
Nissen said his tribe can only afford to have three officers on duty at any given time, and that police response times can take up to two hours due to the size of the reservation.
Carmen Smith, police chief for the Warm Springs, Ore. Tribal Police Department, believes gang violence is weakening tribal communities.
“There exists in Indian country today the twin scourge of drug abuse and criminal gang activity. These two menaces, left unchecked, will undermine the very fabric of Native American society.”
All testifiers agreed that more federal funding and assistance would help reduce the problem.
“Mr. Chairman, while we appreciate very much all that you are trying to do to increase the BIA law enforcement budget, I must respectfully tell you that it is simply not enough,” Mousseau said to Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
“Forgive me for speaking this bluntly, but the simple truth is we need more officers and we need them now. We have 5,000 gang members, but we also have 45,000 scared law abiding people whose lives I have sworn to protect. Please help me in any way that you can to accomplish that goal.
“We need more personnel to provide youth based prevention activities in and after school. And we need more investigators to review and investigate cases at the tribal level. We also need more officers to respond to these calls and merely to prevent the burnout of our current officers. Finally, we need more staff in internal affairs to ensure that our citizen complaints are handled in a timely manner.”
Dorgan agreed there are many needs, saying that gangs appear to be treating Indian reservations as safe havens to distribute drugs and perpetuate violence.
“The fact is Congress has not done its job. … frankly, we have fallen short,” Dorgan said, adding that he hopes Congress will approve a bill this year aimed at strengthening law enforcement in Indian country.
Dorgan said lawmakers and SCIA staffers are working on legislation that would improve coordination between the Department of Justice, the BIA and tribal law enforcement.
He said there is bi-partisan support for such legislation and added that there is a need to encourage more aggressive action by federal prosecutors on tribal reservations and allow tribal courts to punish offenders with up to three years in prison.
He said the committee would continue to monitor the issue.