Street gangs gain foothold on Native American reservations

Wounded Knee, South Dakota  (Andrew Lichtenstein / Facing Change)

Wounded Knee, South Dakota (Andrew Lichtenstein / Facing Change)

During this time of year, school children are often taught the story of the first Thanksgiving, when the Pilgrims met the Indians upon coming to North America. Much like the first Thanksgiving, the true story of the current struggle of Native Americans has remained largely untold and misunderstood.

Native Americans live in some of the most extreme cases of rural poverty in the world and in recent years have encountered many of the same issues plaguing some of the country’s largest urban centers. A prime example of such is the Badlands of South Dakota, which is home to the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Oglala Lakota tribe.

Pine Ridge, once the home of chief Crazy Horse as well as the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, is experiencing poverty on levels usually seen only in third-world nations. Over 90 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, the unemployment rate is estimated to be 85 to 90 percent and life expectancy is 48 years for men and 52 for women.

Pine Ridge has also become home to another growing problem facing many Indian Reservations: gang violence. According to the FBI, Native American gang membership has sharply risen in the last decade, with many notorious street gangs making their presence felt on reservations across the country. Some of these gangs originated in the prison system.

With the high amount of poverty in many reservations, they have become a hotbed for illegal drug and gun trafficking. In some states, the Native gangs are also working in conjunction with Mexican drug cartels, including the infamous Los Zetas cartel of eastern and central Mexico.

According to a 2009 Wall Street Journal report, Washington State Tribal Police seized more than 233,000 marijuana plants in 2008, nearly 10 times the amount found in 2006.

“These criminal organizations are growing in Indian country at an alarming rate,” said Carmen Smith, the police chief of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon. “The [growers] on our reservation were sent directly from Mexico.”

The gangs would infiltrate reservations, often paying Tribal members – most of whom are perpetually unemployed otherwise – thousands of dollars a month to tend to the crops of marijuana.

In a given year, the cartels could bank upwards of $120 million from weed alone. The grow operations largely run along reservations out west, but some have popped up as far east as Michigan and Virginia.

The best-known native gangs – Native Mob and Native Pride – are prevalent on reservations in North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Other native gangs have created their own versions of well known black, white, and Latino gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, Norteños, Sureños, and Juggalos.