September 17, 2009

Gang culture in Indian country

Gangs in Indian Country

Gangs are everywhere in Indian Country and tribal leaders wonder if the community and culture have lost their powers.

By Mary Annette Pember
I recall my surprise at hearing hard-core rap music blaring from a reservation radio station as I drove through the rolling hills of the Dakotas several years ago. It seemed so incongruous to hear the music’s references to urban violence, drug use and gangs in a place so seemingly removed from that world.

On today’s reservations, however, gang culture (including dress, music and behavior) is growing in popularity with young people. Seeing a group of Indian kids dressed in baggy pants and “do-rags” (handkerchief head covering) lounging around the prairie seems almost laughable until I hear the stories of senseless violence committed by these kids. Like so many other disenfranchised youth in America, reservation kids are also drawn to the provocative gang culture and its associated violence.
The kids have gone from being wannabes to actual gang members:Reservation residents blame families who have returned to the reservation from the city, bringing gang culture with them. The gangster look and lifestyle have been quickly embraced by many reservation youth. Community leaders like John Mousseau, Oglala, Chairman of the Pine Ridge Tribal Judiciary Committee in South Dakota, say that gangs found especially fertile ground among Indian kids who are often disaffected and hungry for direction. Early on, much of the gang culture in Indian Country was populated with “wannabes,” kids in baggy pants who engaged in petty crimes and vandalism. More recently, however, violence and drug trafficking have escalated drastically.Are there any solutions?Rolo maintains that perhaps our traditional cultures no longer have the weight and power they once did to influence a generation of youth who are way too assimilated into mainstream American culture.

He says that maybe Indians have overlooked something when we talk about tribal cultures. Could it be that passing on Indian tradition begins with building community, that an investment in recreating community will strengthen our connection to culture, traditions and spirituality? Community as culture. Could this be a viable solution, he asks? He concludes that it is most certainly a discussion worth having in Indian Country.
Comment:  I suspect that most at-risk reservations are already trying to revitalize their communities. And yet gang activities continue to escalate. So what's the solution here: Keep doing what you're doing, but try harder? That prescription doesn't seem very helpful to me.

I'd think along much more specific lines. For instance, assess all the youth programs in Indian Country. I.e., those involving the arts, sports, culture and language, Scouting-type outdoors activities, or whatever. Develop a database listing the most effective ones. Then launch a national initiative with funding to establish the best programs throughout Indian country, starting with the most troubled areas.

The warrior mentality

Gang members are clearly trying to prove how tough and macho they are. I wonder how many of them are responding to the cultural ambiance around them. Their great-great grandfathers were traditional Indian warriors. Their grandfathers and fathers fought in WW II, Korea, and Vietnam. What are these kids going to do to measure up to their forbearers?

To be sure, proving oneself as a rugged individualist, a fighter, and a man is part of the overall American culture. But nowhere is it emphasized more than among Indians. From the ceremonies exalting military veterans to the mascots exalting weapon-wielding savages, everyone promotes the idea of the Indian warrior. Geronimo and Crazy Horse get most of the attention, while no one talks about Indian peacekeepers, teachers, or philosophers.

It's hard to prove a connection between the "Indian warrior" cult(ure) and the increase in gang activity, but I suspect one exists. That's one reason I criticize so many attempts to fetishize the Indian warrior. As far as I'm concerned, we have enough "warriors" who validate themselves with fists and guns. And not enough who battle with words and ideas.

Suppose we had more of the latter than the former. Suppose we supported them with sufficient money and resources. Suppose we championed them as the greatest Indian "warriors."

Then Native youngsters might get a different idea. They might choose a different way. We'll never know until we stop glorifying warriors.

For more on the subject, see The Making of March Point and Native Pair Is BRAVE.


Anonymous said...

One useful tool to help battle the gang infestation in indian country is to start up a boxing club. This way, young men can prove their toughness inside the ring without having to kill anybody.

Another effective method in eradicating gangster mentality from their young brains(although not entirely) is to educate them throughly about cultural awareness and current matters regarding race and politics. And you have to flat out tell them that killing one another is what the white man wants. Either way, they lose. If they want to win a real war, get educated, seek higher education and fight back! This can put some sense into what they are doing. They need to reminded that they're killing off the race and they're not helping to flourish the numbers. Teenagers are not that stupid, they just need to hear the scary truth in order for them to realize what they're doing.

Anonymous said...

alot of the gang culture starts int he home i work currently on a reservation in south dakota and alot of the so called gangmembers are kids who their parents stuck up for them no matter what crime they committed in my opinion if they are sticking up for these persons who are committing these crimes let them sit out time with that individual instead of letting them bail that person out and then bad mouth law enforvement for doing their job

Anonymous said...

The gang sub - culture personifies strength and acceptance in a time of hopelessness. The greater majority societal stucture has evolved to ostracize the Native American. And, the youth are in a constant identity crisis. Being seen as who they are, and being seen as who they want to be- is conflict. Also, there is a huge division between the "older" community members (e.g. grandparents, parents, educators, tribal authorities and leaders), and the youth. The youth are alienated because of a lack of attachment to their culture, elders and community. And, they are sub-consciously believing the typical stereotype image of our self-identity, self-worth. Rather than embracing their cultural virtues, values etc., which seem weak and "victimized", the uninformed youth are gravitating away from both-the greater majority society and the centuries of wrongs perpetrated against the Native American and also their uninformed perceptions of the Native culture. They still want to be a warrior, (strong)but for them, the only alternative reality is the gang sub - culture.
All these societal woes were easily predictable for the Native communities, and the Native gang sub - culture has not yet evolved. We are in a battle and for those that lack acceptance and or are in denial- it is the very same battle our ancestors fought since the coming of the "non-Native." Only difference is the face of the evil destructor has subtly transformed and has been allowed to take hold, seed and is only beginning to flourish. I have found a viable solution that will raise the consciousness and re-connect our Native youth with our ancestral virtues, values, customs and beliefs, while looking to new ways that will bring us all to the center of our sacred circle. The program is adaptable and versatile and can be tailor made to fit any gender, age and Native cultural aspect. We are seeing what happens when our youth choose a direction in life that takes them further and further away from our ancestral values. It is imperative that we all unite to re-direct and connect our Native youth with our ancestral heritage and culture. The alternative to this is these non-Native, cultural ending lessons will replace our ancestral virtues, values and then be taught to our generations who have yet to be born. Erik Bringswhite

Anonymous said...

A friend told me that 5% of white america hates indians, and 5% of white america loves indians, and the other 90% don't give a sh*t. I think that if someone had a reasonable, practical plan, that most of america would get behind it, try to help. Time to set aside philosophy and deal with the things that are in your face, the things in these kids faces.

Is your drinking water clean? Do you and yours have enough to eat? Are your lights hooked up, can you stay warm in winter? How about a decent job, that pays decent wages? Part of the appeal of being in a gang is feeling no longer powerless, people who have a future don't feel powerless.