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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 16, 2002 - Issue 74


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Reservations Battle More Gang Activity

by Dorreen Yellow Bird Grand Forks Herald
credits: art Storyteller by Leland Bell

art Storyteller by Leland BellNo matter how I try to spin the notion that gangs on reservations are nearly harmless, I am wrong. Gang problems are affecting the lives of not only the young people and families in urban Indian communities, but on reservations too.

A recent article, “Gang activity thrives on reservations,” seemed unbelievable to me. In talking with Native American leaders from several reservations, including Red Lake in Minnesota, here is some of what I learned from people who live and work with the problem.

First of all, most realize it isn't just reservations and Native Americans who are facing the problem of young people gone amuck. In 1999's Minnesota Gang Strike Force investigations, there were 660 arrests and 298 convictions of gang members in Minnesota. Crimes included homicide, drive-by shootings and criminal sexual assaults.

Most gangs, the task force says, are broken down along racial lines. That is a national trend. So there is a tie to reservations, where race is obvious. Ten or 15 years ago, gangs wore colors, used hand signals and reacted strongly to real or perceived displays of disrespect. They were younger and more violent, the task force said. They committed crimes in their own community (usually).

Today gangs sell drugs for a lot of money.

A former councilor from Sisseton, S.D., said Native American gangs have been strongly influenced by television, particularly MTV. Television promotes and publicizes men such as Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G., or Biggie Small. “Biggie” did prison time, yet he is glorified on television. And impressionable young children see him as a role model, the councilor said. In addition, drinking and drugs change these young people's attitudes, and help turn them against their families, he said.

You can't blame everything on television, I responded. That's true, he said. But in many communities, we don't have a lot of role models. The good role models that we do have marry white people, move away from the community and forget about the problems here, he said.

Programs on reservations are inadequate. For example, one such program promoted an 8 to 5 work day. But that isn't when the young people need a helping hand, the councilor said. It is when they're out there in the trenches or at the local riverbank, hanging out late at night, he said.

A Red Lake tribal member disagreed, saying the story's focus on gangs at Red Lake is exaggerated. Elders in the schools are trying to teach a better way. But Red Lake needs help, too, she said. It needs places where they can have positive experiences and guidance, yet be around kids their own age.

The Sisseton councilor told me that many of the elders don't or won't see the gang problem.

Yes, there is a gang problem on reservations, said another man, who has worked with young people for more than 20 years.

He has an 8 to 5 job, but he spends a good deal of his time with Native American spirituality. One of the reasons Native American gangs ignite like a match to a pine tree is the lack of their culture, he said.

Years ago, young Indian youths experienced rites of passage. These allowed youths to move from childhood to adulthood under the guidance and tutorage of experienced warriors.

Now, some of the gangs follow a destructive rite of passage, which can destroy their lives almost before they begin, he said.

As I listened to these comments, it struck me that perhaps our own culture has turned on us. What some of these young people seek is a closer relationship with and guidance of elders or those who understand the warriorship on reservations - and they are not getting that.

Certainly, we can fund activity centers, police more and add alcohol counselors. But it seems to me that all of our villages (reservations) need to take responsibility for our children. After all, our children are our future.

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