A culture of violence


On July 12, a gang member brutally attacked a female police officer on the Oglala Sioux’s Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The officer was forced to shoot the suspect and is now in hiding with her family, said John Mousseau, chairman of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, at a hearing in D.C. last month. The same officer makes $35,000 a year with no health benefits and no retirement package, he added.

Mousseau and other tribal leaders from across the West gathered before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to discuss the increased amount of gang activity plaguing reservations all over the country. The violence  is taking a toll on tribal law enforcement offices that are often understaffed, underfunded and overworked.

“We do more with little,” said Sampson Cowboy, director of the Department of Public Safety on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, where there are now 225 documented gangs, compared to 75 gangs in 1997. “We have 0.06 police officers for every 1,000 people... and answer 289,000 calls every year.”

On June 30, the Dept. of Justice released a report indicating that American Indian gangs are becoming involved in more violent behavior, including drive-by shootings, domestic violence and elderly abuse, said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), chairman of the committee.

“In my state of North Dakota, the violent crime rate among Native Americans was 8.5 times higher than the national average in 2008,” he said. “Congress has not done its job … to provide for law enforcement on these reservations, and we are falling short.” 

In the last six months, Dorgan has introduced two bills in the Senate that attempt to get at the root of Indian gang violence. S. 797, also known as the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009, aims to improve prosecution of and response to crimes in Indian Country, while S. 1635, the Indian Youth Suicide Prevention Act, would expand mental health services for Indian youth.  

“Gang activity is just one other symptom of a culture of violence that exists on too many reservations.” Dorgan said. (Check out HCN's 2006 article, "Tribes tackle taggers" and 2007's "Problems in Paradise.")

As gang activity has increased, tribal youth are “openly rejecting tribal culture and values, including respect for elders,” said Brian Nissen, employment and education chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington state. “Young women as young as 13, 14 and 15 are being raped and have a fear of coming forward because their lives and families are being threatened.”

Other details provided by tribal leaders and witnesses at the hearing were alarming:

*There are 39 gangs on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a community of 50,000 members . In 2008, tribal law enforcement officers logged 8,816 gang-related calls, compared to 7,721 in 2006.

*On the Colville reservation in Central Washington, there are only three officers at any given time patrolling an area of 1.4 million acres. Response time to a violent crime can exceed more than two hours.

*There are six gangs on the Colville reservation, two of which are predominantly Hispanic. A Colville tribal gang member now faces federal charges for attempted murder, after he got into a fistfight with a member of the Hispanic SUR 13 gang.

*Since Jan. 1, 2009, the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota has seen 11 suicides and 51 suicide attempts. The rate of suicide among Indian youth is twice the rate of the nation.

*There are 143 juveniles incarcerated in the federal system, 116 or 81 percent of whom are Indians, according to the Bureau of Prisons. 

*Dorgan pointed to the “epidemic” of domestic abuse and sexual violence against women — 34 percent of Indian or Alaska Native women will be raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and 39 percent will suffer domestic violence. 

*Often, gangs from larger metropolises like Minneapolis, Denver and Omaha will infiltrate reservations, taking advantage of strained police resources.


“Youth do this because they are unhappy, powerless and bored,” Oglala Sioux Tribal Council chairman Mousseau said.  “We need more investigators, more officers and more staffers.” 


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