Street gangs gain foothold on Native American reservations

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

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

They often wear the same colors and either have their own signs, names, and symbols or incorporate the ones used the other gangs. For example, members of the Native Mob wear red and black clothing and use such symbols as a medicine wheel or bear paw.

In February, federal authorities charged 24 members of the Native Mob were charged in a 47-count federal indictment with various racketeering and drug offenses in Minnesota.

The wide-ranging indictment included charges of attempted murders of rival gang members, robberies, assaults, threats against witnesses cooperating with law enforcement, and numerous shots fired into houses from 2003 through 2011.

“I consider Native Mob to be one of the most significant and problematic Native American-based gangs in the country, because of their organization,” Christopher Grant, a national Native American gang specialist from Rapid City, S.D., told Minneapolis radio station WCCO on Jan. 27, “[because of] their influence in so many communities and because of their clear propensity to engage in criminal behavior.”

On one count, a pair of Native Mob members was accused of shooting a witness while he was holding his 5-year-old daughter. In another incident, a gang member threw a pot of scalding water into the face of a person protecting a witness who was cooperating with authorities.

Native Mob members were also charged with selling and/or possessing various illegal drugs, including heroin, cocaine, crack, ecstasy, and methamphetamine. Unlike many Native American gangs, the Native Mob are a highly-organized group with a leadership hierarchy similar to that of many well-known street and biker gangs.

“One of the problems traditionally has been these individuals feel they can commit crimes in the city or on one reservation and then go hide in another reservation or another state,” said Minneapolis Police Inspector Mike Martin, a department gang expert. “I think the federal authorities and state authorities here have sent a message to them that you can run but you can’t hide and we will bring them to justice.”

The issues on Indian reservations mirror those of many urban cities such as Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. The pockets of abject poverty have helped create a culture of crime and potential gang violence that has led to many big cities seeing a spike in violent crime in recent years.

While violence on reservations is not to the startling levels of Chicago, the gangs are becoming more pervasive and could start to cause more problems in rural and outlying areas if something isn’t done to change the climate. Just as African-American communities search for answers to stop gang violence, many Native Americans lament these issues that are starting to plague their neighborhoods.

“We failed these kids somewhere along the line,” said Bill Zeigler, president and chief executive of Little Earth of United Tribes, a Native American housing community in Minneapolis that he described as a drug-free zone. “We as a community better view this as maybe we have a little bit of a reprieve, a little bit of breathing room, and we better plug something in to replace gang violence.”

Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter @JayScottSmith