Gang culture — and violence — hit rural Indian reservations


TOWAOC, Colorado — A lone trailer sits on a dun-colored desert plateau on southwestern Colorado’s Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. The trailer’s walls sport spray-painted territorial marks — graffiti tags — in bright colors.

This extreme tableau — urban street-style graffiti in a remote Indian community — is occurring more frequently all the time, say Indian law enforcement officials. Reservations from Arizona to Idaho have watched gang activity evolve from graffiti to assaults to drive-by shootings, as gangs spread from their traditional urban confines into rural Indian Country.

"It started out as a trend," says Sgt. Lance Osborne, a police officer on the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho. "No one really treated it as gangs because they thought gangs were a big-city problem." With the exception of the Navajo Nation, the only tribal communities experiencing gang problems were those near urban centers such as Phoenix, Ariz., or Tacoma, Wash. In the past five years, however, that has changed.

 A loss of tradition

Towaoc Police Chief Mike Yazza first saw gang activity on the Ute Reservation a few years ago. Graffiti tags referencing two notorious L.A. gangs — Sureño 13 and the Crip Killing Society — broadcast rival messages across Ute Mountain tribal lands. Assaults were on the rise, especially unreported ones, where a victim refuses to name his attacker for fear of gang retaliation.

Yazza, a Navajo with 23 years of law enforcement experience, had reason to be alarmed. The Ute Mountain Ute Reservation abuts the Navajo Nation, where gangs have run rampant for 15 years. In 1997, Navajo officials testified before the Senate that there were 75 gang "sets" on the reservation. A tribal housing project in Fort Defiance, Ariz., was nicknamed Beirut because of its intense gang warfare. Just an hour’s drive south of Towaoc, in the town of Shiprock, six homicides were committed during December 2005 and January 2006 alone.

A 2004 Department of Justice survey said that American Indians experience a per capita violence rate twice that of the rest of the U.S. population. But how much of that is gang-related is uncertain, since only a few reservations track gang-related crime. Dr. Troy Armstrong, a researcher at the Center for Delinquency and Crime Policy Studies at California State University, conducted one of the few in-depth studies of Indian gangs, on the Navajo Reservation — but his data is 11 years old, and little statistical analysis has been done since. Hoping to fill the data gap, the Federal Bureau of Investigation plans a comprehensive survey of gang activity in Indian Country next year.

Armstrong’s study found that gangs often come to Indian Country from outside, when a tribal member returns to the reservation from an urban area, bringing gangster culture with him. Indian gangs often adopt the names of California gangs, such as Crips, Bloods, and Sureños. The names are common parlance in youth culture, popularized through video games like Grand Theft Auto and rap music, gang specialists say. Rapper Snoop Dogg claims Crip allegiance, and many major hip-hop players adopt "gangsta" postures.

In Indian gangs, Armstrong says, these pop-culture icons are blended with traditional tribal symbols. Gangster kids on the Navajo Nation embrace what he calls "a romanticized sense of pan-Indianism." Other gangs draw on tribal history: Nez Perce gangs in Idaho call themselves the Non-Treaty Bloods in reference to Chief Joseph’s stand against the U.S. government. The Warrior Society, a prison gang, uses a traditional circular shield with two eagle feathers as its logo. Self-mutilation, where gang members brand or burn insignia into their skin, is more common in Indian gangs, inspired by tribal rituals.

Osborne, at Fort Hall, blames family instability, and says the rise of Indian gangs mirrors a national trend (HCN, 8/8/05). But he also points to a loss of connection with community-based tribal tradition. "The kids who have tradition — none of them are in gangs," he says.

 "No more funerals"

Chris Grant is an ex-cop, and looks the part. He’s now the nation’s leading specialist on Indian gangs, and travels around the country teaching tribes how to combat gang activity. He visits close to 50 reservations a year, diagnosing the severity of gang problems and offering suggestions to local law enforcement and community leaders. Grant believes in community empowerment: "Gang activity will go as far as you let it," he says.

Many tribes agree — Fort Hall, which revised its tribal code to address gang-related crime, now devotes half of its police officers to a gang task force. The Nez Perce Tribe plans to change its tribal code, and John Williamson, a Nez Perce police officer, is a full-time presence in the reservation’s schools, giving gang awareness presentations and talking with tribal youth.

In Towaoc in July, about 25 community members listened closely to Grant’s presentation. He taught them how to recognize gang activity and decode gang language. "187 CKS," for example, means "kill the Crip Killing Society," 187 being the California penal code for homicide. Although Towaoc has seen little more than fist fights and graffiti so far, Grant warns against dismissing rural kids as "wannabes," faux gang members: "If a kid tells you he’s in a gang," he says, "then you take him seriously."

The Ute Mountain Utes plan to do so. Following Grant’s suggestions, they are starting a task force to eradicate graffiti, and will discuss modifying the tribal code to fight gang crimes. As one tribal member at the training put it: "If we don’t (do something) we’re going to be having more and more funerals."

The author is an HCN intern.