WASHINGTON – For the third time in just a few months, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has focused attention on combating tribal gang violence and drug trafficking.
At a Nov. 19 hearing, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the committee, reiterated what has become something of a mantra for him in 2009, saying that crime, including drug smuggling and gang activity, has reached epidemic levels on many reservations.
Earlier this year, Dorgan sponsored the Tribal Law and Order Act, S. 797, which is aimed at improving the prosecution of and response to crimes in Indian country.
The bill was considered in the committee, which recommended in September it be considered by the Senate as a whole. The full legislative body has not yet acted.
Arnold Moorin, director of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, shared with the committee some of the reasons why many reservation communities tend to be faced with steep crime problems.
“Many Indian tribes are at risk from illegal drug trafficking, production, and consumption because these tribes are located in geographically remote areas and suffer from a lack of economic development,” he testified.
“The high poverty and unemployment rates, combined with limited access to health care, educational opportunities, and social services make Native communities disproportionately vulnerable.”
Moorin added that drug consumption and substance abuse appears especially high among some tribal communities, based on national studies.
Making the matter worse, Moorin said, is an increase in youth gangs on some reservations, which help deal and sell illegal substances.
To help address the problem, Moorin noted that President Barack Obama has expressed support for the Tribal Law and Order Act.
At the recent White House Tribal Nations Conference, the president said that one in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime and called it “an assault on our national conscience.”
The president pledged that his administration will take on the trends.
Ivan Posey, chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, used written testimony to the committee to delve more in-depth on reservation drug issues, specifically those surrounding methamphetamines in Indian country.
He said the Wind River Reservation was systematically targeted by the Sagaste-Cruz drug ring from 2000 to 2005 to illegally sell the addictive drug before a coordinated law enforcement effort broke up the ring.
“Their plan was simple: Introduce a drug to a highly addictive population with an understaffed law enforcement, the allure of easy money, and become entrenched in the community through family and interpersonal relationships,” Posey testified.
The chairman believes the drug ring was able to identify the vulnerabilities of his reservation and then use them as strengths in conducting their illegal activities.
Posey said that similar nefarious plans have taken root across Indian country.
In July, the committee heard from four tribal witnesses who recounted tales of increased violence, sometimes related to gangs and drugs.
Oglala Sioux Tribal Council member Hermis John Mousseau testified at the time that his tribe 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.
All testifiers agreed that more federal funding and assistance would help reduce the problem.
“The fact is Congress has not done its job. … frankly, we have fallen short,” Dorgan said at the time.
Posey indicated that ending the epidemic will take more than an intervention from Congress.
“What it takes to continually address these issues and concerns is collaboration and relationships,” the chairman testified.
Nancy Dooley, an educational administrator with the Gila River Indian Community, further testified that it is important to stop gang activity by not only addressing illegal activity, but also by taking preventative and intervention steps.
She said youth programs created by her own tribe have shown success in those areas.
Dorgan and other legislators have indicated their support for such tribal programs. The senator has said that the Tribal Law and Order Act is not just focused on prosecuting offenders.
If passed, the law would call for an investment in existing programs meant to improve courts, jails, youth programs, and policing efforts in Indian country.