Gangs In Indian Country

Gangs On Indian Reservations

Indian Country encompasses more than 56 million acres in the lower 48 states with millions of additional acres in Alaska.  In spite of the fact that some are in the most isolated sections of the United States, they are no longer protected from crimes rampant in cities and town in North America.  Likely, the dramatic escalation of violent crimes in Indian Country during this decade is directly associated with the increased presence of street gangs

Homicides, rapes, assaults, robberies, kidnappings, and weapons and/or drug trafficking are being reported in record numbers.  A closer look reveals that Native American youths experience much the same problems as juveniles around the rest of the country and lack the support structures and resources to deal with them. 


Links to the Native American gang problem

  • American Indian Youth - Current and historical drama
  • Growing Up Indian - the influence of gangs
  • OJJDP - Youth Gangs in Indian Country
  • Gangs infiltrate Minn. reservations
  • Drug problem said to be behind reservation drive-bys

    Native American Gangs

    "Native American Gangs" -One of the biggest things happening on the reservations and in urban centers where there are large Native American populations is the “gang problem. I've spoken to some tribal elders who want to downplay the problem (denial). What I have personally seen in my work is that the tribes have tried hard to instill cultural pride and teach the traditions to the youth. Many Native youth are no different than other youth in that they may rebel against the older generation. They may engage in self-destructive behaviors through street gangs. Many of these youth were exposed to gangs in big U.S. cities, thus have borrowed heavily from major groups, Sur13, Crips, Bloods, Folks, etc.

    Many of the tribes have tried to bring youth back to the reservations as well as provide jobs through the growth of Indian gaming. This has been successful in many respects, but the gang affiliated youth may see a jackpot and use their money for criminal acts. Native American street gang members will visit rural communities to recruit members. There is evidence that some Native gangs are working with Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

    One recent study that has been done by the Center for Delinquency and Crime Policy Studies at Sac State University notes the lack of such research. “The ongoing failure to mention Native American youth gangs may simply be symptomatic of the usual oversight by researchers to incorporate any discussion of Indian justice issues into the national dialogue on crime and delinquency or may speak to the relative newness and novelty of this emerging problem.”

    Several past surveys are noted that had limited scope and depth. The FBI survey “Gangs on Indian Reservations” (Conway 1999) which gave a brief on 40 different reservations and the BIA Survey (Juneau 1999). 75 tribes have noted gang activities. The Navajo Gang Study conducted in 1995 states that gangs began appearing on the Rez in the early 1990’s. The study found that gang members were drawn from a highly troubled segment of youth on the reservation, often came from dysfunctional families, had lost contact with much of the native culture, were heavily involved in the use of alcohol and drugs, experienced severe problems in school, and were engaged in drug trafficking and violence on a selective basis. New CDCPS research is being looked at.

    Two out of five American Indian youth ages 13-17 in South Minneapolis are not sure they will live to be 25 years old. This is just one of the startling statistics that reveal how gangs and viollnce are affecting urban Native youth today. Other statistics reveal: 54% of 91-0 yr. olds 74% of 11-12 yr. olds and 79% of 13-17 yr. olds have had a family member shot or stabbed! 68% of 9-10 yr. olds 53% of 11-12 yr. olds and 47% of 13-17 are worried about getting shot or stabbed! 34% of 9-10 yr. olds 63% of 11-12 yr. olds and 75% of 13-17 yr. olds don’t feel they can count on the police for help… for more information contact Mike Goze at Healthy Nations (612) 879-1743

    There is an increasing number of gangs appearing in many reservations in the U.S. and even in Canada. Some of these gangs have members who when incarcerated have joined prison gangs like the Manitoba Warriors and Warrior’s Society and street gangs like “Ruthless Duece” and “Native Gangster Bloods”. Many prisons do have sweat lodges and Indian Clubs, which may be positive in nature, or may be subject for attempts by Security Threat Groups for criminal activities. See news articles below:

    “Welcome for Winnepeg Gangs” February 15, 1999 The Edmonton Journal Last June, an officer with a joint RCMP-city police unit warned that aboriginal gangs were targeting wealthy Alberta reserves to recruit new members and set up drug trafficking and prostitution operations… Abstracted From AP 11/21/94, Tulsa, OK ."American Indian Youngsters Increasingly Joining Gangs"

    Law enforcement officers and social workers say the picture is changing regarding Native American youth and involvement w/ street gangs. Max Benson, guidance counselor at Lloyd Raider Center in Sand Springs, OK, said when he first started working with youth at the juvenile detention center, "maybe three out of all the number of young people we had were Indian." "Now we have Indian kids in every unit," said Benson, a Pawnee tribal member. Police in Tulsa are also alarmed by the apparent increase in gang activity among Indian Youth. "Three years ago we didn't know of a Native American gang," said Cpl. Al Wilson, Tulsa Police. "We had Native Americans in gangs, but now we have more than one gang that is strictly Native American." Wilson says Indian gangs are similar to gangs in Los Angeles and other urban areas where membership falls along racial lines. Gang members often commit crimes in urban areas and flee to tribal land to hide, something Tribal leaders would like to see stopped. The Pawnee tribe created a gang intervention unit last spring, believed to be the first in the nation geared towards Indian gangs. The "Tribes of Oklahoma Gang Task Force", was created for educational purposes, Benson is a member. The group will speak to tribes, schools, educators; do problem assessments and help tribal police develop strategies to ID gangs. An Indian law enforcement officer, who wished to remain anonymous, said 15 Indian gangs have been identified in Oklahoma.



    Native American Involvement in the Street Gang Subculture


    Christopher M. Grant, M.A.

    Captain-Rapid City (SD) Police Department (Ret)

    Delaney was 19 years old when he pulled the trigger and killed his best friend. The Boyz, a street gang primarily comprised of Native American youth, were having a party, and Delaney brought his semi-automatic pistol with him, because he was a “gangsta.”. Thinking the weapon was unloaded, and wanting to impress his “homies”, Delaney displayed the weapon, pointed it at his 18 year-old childhood buddy and pulled the trigger, sending a round into the face of the young man he had often referred to as his “little brother.” Delaney served a short prison term and an extended period of parole for second-degree manslaughter. He also disavowed his gang membership, but his life had already changed forever.

     The gang subculture has emerged as one of the most significant social problems in the history of our country. Crossing all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries, gang activity and the belief system associated with it, has made its presence known in every state in our nation, and within most communities, both large and small.

     The historical focus of research into the causes of gang activity has generally been directed toward urban areas and traditional gang structures. While this is completely appropriate and necessary, it has become increasingly apparent that gang activity has evolved into a national problem, affecting all races, all ethnicities, and both urban and rural communities. Such is the case with gang activity as it relates to Native Americans as a population group, and to the communities, both on and off reservations, where Native Americans reside.

     Within the United States, there are 562 federally recognized Indian tribes and Alaska Native groups, each with their own unique historical background, culture and traditions. (1) Demographically, the Native American population is relatively small, with the 2000 census reporting that there are approximately 2.4 million American Indian and Alaska Native people living in the United States (2). However, the Census Bureau projects that this same population group will increase to approximately 4.6 million by the year 2050. Additionally, the current Native American population is relatively young; with the median age of the Native American population at twenty-six, and 39 percent of the population is under the age of twenty. When age is taken into consideration as an element of gang involvement, a considerable number of young Native Americans are at risk for this behavior, since the average age of most gang-involved individuals falls within this age category.

    Over the past decade, crime in Indian Country has increased significantly, with much of the criminal behavior revolving around violence and drug trafficking. While not all of the increase in crime can be attributed to gang activity, gangs and the violence associated with them are certainly a part of the equation.

    Much of the gang behavior in Indian Country is unstructured and informal, and Native American gangs tend to be loose knit, small, and autonomous. However, the growth of the gang problem on many reservations over the past several years is startling, and all indications point to increased problems in the years ahead.

    The Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota is an example of this unprecedented growth. In a Reuters news article dated December 11, 2003, Tribal Law Enforcement Officer John Mousseau is quoted as reporting that there are as many as 3,500 gang members living on the reservation, which has a total population base of approximately 15,000 people.(3) Mousseau was recently the target of a gang-related act of violence, when he responded to a report of shots being fired from a house on the reservation. Upon responding, Mousseau began talking to the reporting party when he was fired upon. The reporting party was hit, and a bullet grazed Mousseau’s ear. Mousseau was able to return fire and strike the attacker, a known gang member who was drunk and had been using drugs. The subject, who died from his wounds, had fired approximately 30 rounds from a semi-automatic assault rifle.

    Obviously, not every Native American youth who joins a street gang will become involved in this level of violence, but the potential exists by simple virtue of their gang affiliation. And, most Native American youth understand the negativity of the gang subculture and choose to stay away from it. Still, many of the individuals who join reservation gangs do so because they feel the need to choose sides, and align themselves with one gang structure or another for their own protection. The need for status, recognition and acceptance play a major role in the decision-making process these young people engage in, and because of this is it is not uncommon for them to move from one gang structure to another, depending upon which gang is perceived as being the most powerful, popular or influential. Criminal behavior occurring for the benefit of the gang tends toward acts of violence and destructive behavior, while drug trafficking usually occurs among individuals, rather than the gangs themselves.

    In considering the Native American experience with street gangs, there are three primary questions that bear consideration:

           1.  Is the number of Native Americans involved in gang activity disproportionate within their population group?

           2.  Are certain aspects of Native American gang activity unique, to the exclusion of other gang groups?

           3.  Are there unique sociological or historical considerations that contribute to Native American gang involvement?

     These questions will be considered individually in the remainder of this paper.

    Question 1: Is the number of Native Americans involved in gang activity disproportionate within their population group?

    The answer to this question is a qualified “no.” Although it does not appear that the Native American population is over-represented in the gang subculture, one of the significant problems in dealing with the issue is the lack of clear and definitive statistical information regarding the number of Native Americans involved in this behavior.

    While it is clear that some reservations struggle with high numbers of gang-involved youth, others appear to have little trouble in this area. However, the picture of the extent of the activity remains unclear, despite efforts to clarify the extent of the problem.

    The best current source of information available on the subject is the National Youth Gang Center’s 2000 survey of gangs in Indian Country.(4) Indian Country is generally defined as the 314 reservations or trust lands throughout the United States where Native Americans reside, but this, too, provides only part of the picture. In fact, only about 35 percent of Native Americans reside in Indian Country, with fully 65 percent of the population living off reservation lands.

    The survey the National Youth Gang Center conducted attempted to look at more precise data regarding the gang issue in Indian Country by asking the various tribes to respond to their survey. Of 577 tribes contacted, approximately 300 responded to the survey. However, of the 300 responding tribes, only 23 percent reported gang activity within their jurisdiction, while fully 70 percent reported no gang activity. Notably, the remaining 7 percent of respondents reported that they did not know whether or not they had gang activity occurring in their communities.

    Although these survey results apparently reflect low numbers of gang activity in Indian Country, consideration must be given to two prevailing factors that are barriers to effective identification and interdiction of gang activity in Native American communities. These are the barriers of denial and minimization of the problem. While it is possible that some areas of Indian Country are not affected by gang activity, it is more likely that the behavior exists, but is seen as transitory and fad-based, unworthy of concern, or simply unrecognized, due to a lack of education regarding the behavior. Furthermore, over 250 tribes did not respond to the survey, preventing the opportunity to gain a comprehensive understanding of the extent of the problem in Indian Country.

    In my many years of working with law enforcement, educators and tribal officials in Indian Country, I am aware that a certain level of frustration exists when it comes to crafting a coordinated effort to deal with the issue of gangs. Although many tribal members recognize the problem and want to take aggressive steps to deal with it, there remains, for the most part, a lack of acceptance and recognition of the problem, and the tendency to “let it run its course” as opposed to dealing with the behavior.

    Question 2: Are certain aspects of Native American gang activity unique, to the exclusion of other gang groups?

     The answer to this is both “yes” and “no”. One must consider that the experience of urban Native Americans is different in some regards than that of Native Americans living in Indian Country.

    For example, urban Native American youth who become gang-involved are more likely to gravitate to existing gang structures within the community in which they reside, and become active members or associates of such gangs, regardless of the gang’s racial or ethnic composition. When Native American youth connect with urban street gangs, they tend to take on the characteristics of that urban gang structure, in terms of clothing, body markings, symbolism and other manifestations of gang behavior. While some Native American-based gang sets have formed in urban areas, the more typical trend is for these youth to gravitate toward and attach themselves to an existing gang structure.

    Gangs in Indian Country, on the other hand, tend to be comprised primarily of Native American youth, since they are the predominant population group in Indian Country. Native American youth in Indian Country who become gang-involved are more likely to adopt their own gang style, in terms of their gang’s name, symbolism and body markings. Some Native American gang members, for example, will go to great lengths to symbolize their gang affiliation through burning and branding their bodies with markings that depict their gang involvement, such as through the use of the pitchfork of the Folk Nation. While some of these markings may tend toward a hybrid-based gang style, others may be unique, such as the burning or cutting of horizontal markings into the arm, or the cutting or burning of the gang’s initials into the body. Some Native American gang members characterize the burning and branding as being traditional, in that they are emulating the Warrior Society within traditional Native American culture. This warped logic, however, does not take into consideration that the traditional purpose of the Warrior Society was to protect the members of the tribe, instead of creating a climate of fear and victimization.

    Finally, the names of certain Native American gangs, whether they are urban or reservation-based, suggest affiliation with a larger, national gang structure, such as Native Gangster Bloods or Indian Crips. Other gang names, such as Native Mob, A-Town, Nomadz or Wild Boyz tend to have their own unique history or are connected to a specific community or other geographical location.

    What remains similar among all gang structures is the shared belief system…the “gangster mentality”, which exists within the street gang subculture, regardless of where it is found.

    Question 3:  Are there unique sociological or historical considerations that contribute to Native American gang involvement?

    The answer to this question is an unequivocal “yes.” While all races and ethnicities have had their own struggles, some of which were very difficult, the Native American experience is unparalleled in American history, particularly when one considers the policies that led to the creation of reservations and trust lands, as well as forced assimilation and acculturation. On many levels, the Native American culture has been lost, and the lack of cultural identity that exists in the lives of many young Native Americans has been a contributing factor to gang and delinquent behavior. Furthermore, the consistent and pervasive issues of unemployment, poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, physical and sexual abuse, and a host of other social factors existing in Indian Country, have created a climate where gang activity easily develops and flourishes.

    Obviously, no social problem creates a viable excuse for gang behavior to occur. But in the case of many of the Native Americans who choose this path, the gang lifestyle is seen as an attractive alternative to present living conditions, especially when the media often glorifies the image of the street gangster as wealthy, powerful and influential. A great deal of social instability exists in Indian Country due the conflict between what the gang lifestyle portrays as positive and worthwhile, and the unrest, disappointment and uncertainty that comes from living a life that lacks concrete goals, dreams and ideals.

    So what is the solution to this pressing and increasingly common problem? Unfortunately, the answers are no more certain for Native American gang members than for any other gang-involved individual, since a “one size fits all” approach to the gang problem simply does not exist. And, each tribe and tribal community has its own strengths and weaknesses, as well as unique problems, so any approach to gang issues must be tailored to specific communities. Certainly, in many parts of Indian Country, there exists the need for more effective tribal courts, better law enforcement training and coordination, and tribal leadership involvement in creating an atmosphere where gang behavior won’t be tolerated. And, as mentioned earlier, the barriers of minimization and denial must be broken down through education in order to allow tribal communities to more clearly see the behaviors that are occurring. But beyond this, there are basic needs that must be met. Young people need an outlet for their energy, so basic employment and recreational opportunities must be created and sustained. And, these same young people have a rich and diverse culture that can be re-gained through mentoring and role-modeling, allowing them to see a life that is rewarding and positive, instead of violent and self-destructive. The answers aren’t easy, but with patience, perseverance and education, changes in the lives of these young people can be made, and viable solutions can be found.The high incidence of divorce, alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty and alienation are not exclusive to mainstream America.  However, because of the difficulty in collecting and reporting processes, statistics and information on crimes in Indian Country are sometimes sketchy.


    1.Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs


    3.Reueters “Youth Gangs Flourish on Indian Reservations”, December 11, 2003

    4.National Youth Gang Center:  



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