Saturday, September 26, 2009

Rising gang violence on rural native reservations

Often considered an aspect of urban poverty by the collective conscious, gangs and gang violence have  for more than a decade made increasing inroads into rural Native American Reservations. This recent story in the Oregonian brought the problem to my attention, with gang violence erupting outside of Pendleton, OR between Hispanics and members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. However, this problem is not contained to simply to the rural reservations in the West. As this story from Minnesota Public Radio points out, this is a problem nationwide.

Gangs are a big problem on Indian reservations. Authorities estimate that on White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake -- the state's three largest reservations -- hundreds of young Native men consider themselves part of a gang.

The recognition of this problem in the media goes back at least to 1995, when the NY Times published an article entitle “New Frontier for Gangs: Indian Reservations” which estimated at that time there were 1,000 gang members in Arizona’s 21 recognized reservations, including the Navajo reservation, the Nation’s largest.

These gangs want the same things as their urban counterparts…control over the often burgeoning reservation drug trade and are willing to utilize the same violent tactics associated with the Crips and Bloods, stabbings, beatings, drive-bys and terror. The major difference is the Native gangs are operating is largely rural areas where access to services can be little or nonexistent, and where police forces are small and overextended. Sometimes dubbed “rural ghettos”, unemployment on some rural reservations can reach upwards of 75% (Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota).
"We need more officers and we need them now," said Hermis John Mousseau, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council at Pine Ridge. "We have 5,000 gang members, but we also have 45,000 scared law abiding people whose lives I have sworn to protect." In South Dakota, Mousseau said his police department of 48 officers — 12 per shift — must patrol a reservation the size of Rhode Island. Many of their police calls are 50 to 60 miles apart, leaving their response time to an hour for even the most violent acts. Many calls go unanswered.”
In comparison, there are 60 sworn officers for the City of Davis.

So what we have are generations of disenfranchised young men with no employment opportunities with the added bonus that most come from a warrior culture. Many of these young men float in and out of their native culture, either rejecting it, as suggested here:
“Certainly Gee Mony's group of young followers who gathered in the lot here the other day seemed to know or care little about their heritage as sons of the Navajo Nation. They proudly displayed the tattoos and hand signs that identified them as Insane Young Cobras, but when a visitor asked 15-year-old Ricardo Montalvo what a Navajo is, he replied, "Just the skin." (NY Times article)
Or embracing it as a path to leaving the gang life, as suggested here:
"Now it's time to just walk the Red Road, go down that path," Fisherman said. "It's going to be a struggle, but I'm going to do it, you know. I just gotta do it." (Minnesota Public Radio article)
The problem has gotten so bad that it was brought to the attention of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which held hearings on S. 797, the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009 in June of 2009. S.797 is an attempt to strengthen the ability of Tribal Police to enforce Tribal laws, extends jurisdictional control over crimes committed on Tribal land, and allows for stiffer Tribal sentences.

So how do we fight this problem? Are the policing aspects of S.797 enough or with the socio-economic realities of rural Reservations, is this simply a problem of no jobs, no services, and no way to get either? For a pictorial view of Reservation gang life, I highly recommend visiting Huey’s depictions are stark and haunting.


Ollie said...

This report, compiled by the DOJ/National Institute of Justice provides some excellent background on this issue. We see the mechanics of a small town police force, facing distrust and intra-tribal family conflicts, policing huge areas. Combine this with the higher than average gun-ownership (significantly including illegal assault rifles) and the influx of “big city” crime talk about in your post and it’s easy to see a distressing picture arise. Will extra policing be enough? After scanning through the articles, it seems as if more bodies are not enough. BIA police offices need access to the same technology and infrastructure that anti-gang units in larger cities have in order to make appreciable progress against gang violence in reservations.

Spec said...

I read an interesting piece somewhere that said we should stop calling them gangs and start calling them Domestic Terror Groups. While a semantics game, could even this small change result in a change in the way the public views this problem?

Jessica Taylor said...

Doesn't the idea of a "rural gang" seem to be an oxymoron? Urban stereotypes certainly suggest such. Perceptions of low crime rates in rural areas perpetuate the problems of a lack of funding for rural criminal justice. While urban crime is diminishing, rural crime rates are increasing. The distribution of stories such as this one go a long way toward proving to the policy makers that rural criminal justice is a problem that deserves some monetary support.