Gang Violence On The Rise On Indian Reservations

The Justice Department is trying to combat violence and lawlessness in Native American communities caused by gang activity. Navajo country recently reported 225 gangs in its territory alone and more reservations noting the increased presence of gangs. Guest host Jennifer Ludden talks about why gangs are becoming a major issue in Native American territories with Christopher Grant, former Chief of Detectives in Rapid City, South Dakota, and is now a national Native American Gang Specialist. Natay Carroll, a Navajo Indian who is a former gang member, and radio host Harlan McKasato, who is from the Sac and Fox tribe.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up schools back in session, and we'll let you know why your kids may need more vaccinations this year than usual.

But first, starting today and over the next two months, the Justice Department is mounting a high-profile effort to combat violence and crime in Native American communities. Top justice officials are in Seattle today for a listening tour.

In coming weeks, they will travel to New Mexico and Minnesota. One issue, they are likely to hear a lot about an increase in Native American gangs. It's an old problem in some areas, but it's spreading and getting worse as drug traffickers take advantage of loopholes in law enforcement on tribal lands. Navajo country recently reported 225 gangs in its territory.

Joining us now to talk about this is Christopher Grant. He is the former chief of detectives in Rapid City, South Dakota, and is now a national Native American gang specialist. Natay Carroll is Navajo, he's now a sports promoter but is a former gang member who's traveled the country to share his experiences with young people, and also joining us is Harlan McKasato from the Sac & Fox tribe. He hosts a radio program, "Native America Calling". Welcome to all of you.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER GRANT (Former Chief Detective, Rapid City): Thank you.

Mr. HARLAN McKASATO (Host, "Native America Calling"; Sac & Fox Tribe Member): (unintelligible)

Mr. NATAY CARROLL (Member of Navajo Community): Thanks for having us on.

LUDDEN: Christopher, can I start with you and can you give us a sense of the growth and reach of gangs on tribal lands.

Mr. GRANT: Well, the growth and spread of this problem really depends on what you're talking about in Indian country. Certainly, we're seeing an increase in the Midwest , Northwest and Southwest, where the majority of Indian country is located. But not every reservation is affected or impacted by the problem. Certainly, however, over the last five to eight years, there's been a notable and significant increase in gang activity in many tribal communities in that region of the country.

LUDDEN: And you've written that urban, non-native gangs, it's not like that they're moving on to these reservations, they're locally grown, if you will, but there is something of an influence factor.

Mr. GRANT: Yeah, that's correct. This really tends to be, excuse me, what we call a hybrid form of gang activity involving individuals from the tribal communities who will often claim affiliation with a national gang and use their names and signs and symbols but have no connection to the gang other than the name.

Now that's not complete in that regard, and that from time to time we do know that an urban gang influence is transplanted to the reservation. But for the most part, it is a hybrid form of gang behavior. The important point is that it's the same gangster mentality. That's what we need to be concerned about.

LUDDEN: And Harlan, this gangster mentality, I mean is this something that you hear about through your radio show. Do your listeners call in about this?

Mr. McKASATO: Yes, Jennifer, I hear about this problem that Chris just described. We talked about it from time to time on our program, and one of the things that I hear is that there's a disconnect from our traditional Native American culture and our values. So what I'm hearing from our listeners is that, you know, somehow we need to reverse that and…

LUDDEN: What do you mean this disconnect, what do people say?

Mr. MCKOSATO: Well, there is, you know, in our traditional values, I think you're looking for acceptance, you know, from within. You sort of build a relationship within yourself. And what we're seeing now is this, you know, looking for acceptance from outside. And, you know, people on the ground level like Natay, we're looking at people like that to help our young people reconnect back to the culture because, you know, we need more law enforcement. There's no doubt about that, but I think to really tackle this problem from what I'm hearing from people is that we got to get the mindset of the young people to change and it's got to come from the ground level.

LUDDEN: I want to get to law enforcement in a minute. But, Natay, can you tell us a bit of your story. How did you become involved in a gang?

Mr. CARROLL: It was pretty much exactly what Chris was talking about was, you know, the outside influence, the urban influence that actually was a big influence on, I guess you could say the enticement of the whole thing. You know, there's a lot of media stuff that's out there. There's a lot of negative influence within the community, the social community, you know, just everything that has to do within the Native American reservations that have lack of resources, you know, to help our young people to keep them in a positive frame of mind.

LUDDEN: Well, we know that crime is much higher in native lands, there's lots of alcoholism, domestic violence. I mean, are these the things you're talking about?

Mr. CARROLL: Yes, those are the exact things that actually fuel the choice, to make that choice, to make the quick buck, you know, because a lot of time a lot of our young people in the reservations don't have their resource to be able to express themselves in any type of manner other than what resources - limited resources they have on the reservations.

And when you see someone that comes out of the urban area onto the reservation that carried (unintelligible) that's exactly what, you know, the young people in the reservation are looking for and tend to emulate. And, you know, I mean it just becomes something that's informative. Once you have an individual like that on the reservation, you start having a gravitational pull towards that individual because he's had that experience and he's got that reputation.

LUDDEN: If you're just joining us, I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. A rise in gangs on Indian reservations is causing concern. We're talking to Native American radio host Harlan McKasato, former gang member Natay Carroll and national Native American gang expert Christopher Grant.

Christopher, we said that drug traffickers take advantage of a gap in law enforcement on Indian reservations. Can you just explain to me who does have jurisdiction?

Mr. GRANT: Well, first of all, I would just want to comment Harlan and Natay's comments are just spot on in terms of the cultural disconnect and the other elements being referred to.

But to answer your question, okay, one of the issues out there has to do with lack of law enforcement resources or sufficient law enforcement resources. And yes, there are drug traffickers who are aware of that, who have sought to take advantage of that. This is not to suggest that inroads have been made into every reservation, every tribal community, but there are plenty of stories about drug traffickers taking advantage of that situation.

More importantly, they're taking advantage of the market that exists in certain tribal communities. Obviously, we wouldn't have a drug problem if there was not a market for drugs. So, they are exploiting that element as well. When you combine the drug world and the gang world, nothing good comes from that combination. So, this is of great concern as well.

LUDDEN: But is it really a fact that it's more likely to get away with something on a tribal reservation than they would in another jurisdiction? Harlan, is the lack of effective law enforcement an issue there?

Mr. MCKOSATO: Well, I think, you know, I agree with Chris that it's not that way on every reservation. I know - I talk with the attorney general there in Arizona. The former Attorney General Diane Humetewa from the Hopi reservation and, you know, she was explaining that one of the big problems in Arizona is that, you know, we have these interstates that runs, you know, from Mexico right through a lot of the reservations there. So, that's a big problem. It's leads right up into Denver and then it spreads from there. And so, I think law enforcement would help. But, you know, it's going to take more than that, Jennifer. It's - the problem is bigger than just adding more police officers.

LUDDEN: Is there a jurisdictional issue, though? I mean can things fall through the cracks?

Mr. GRANT: Yeah, it can.

LUDDEN: Christopher?

Mr. GRANT: I'm sorry. I didn't mean to jump in. Yeah, the jurisdiction issue in Indian country is complicated as well. I mean, there are various levels. There's tribal law enforcement, BIA Law Enforcement, federal law enforcement, there's PL 280. There's a - it's a complicated maze of jurisdictional issues. And, yes, that to some degree, can be to the advantage of drug-involved individuals to exploit that opportunity to fall through the cracks, as you say.

However, my experience is that most law enforcement in Indian country is your professional, dedicated, aware of the problem, do the best they can with the resources they have.

LUDDEN: Natay, can I ask you as a former gang member, I mean, from - looking back now, what do you think is needed? What could have maybe prevented you from getting involved in a gang or got you out of it earlier?

Mr. CARROLL: Well, there's a number of things, you know, that when I was running the streets and doing my thing, you know, that - you know, I heard and saw that was kind of challenging for me, you know, as an active member. You know, one of the things is, you know, I've - we've always heard the term, let's fight back. Let's take back. And these are real combative words when you put it out there into a community, you know, let's fight for this. Let's fight back. Let's take back. You know, it's almost in a sense you're egging on the gang to resist you.

Now, if you - we were to address this in a different manner to where, you know, we actually have, you know, we're not talking combative. You know, we're fighting back, we're taking back everything, you know, you're not going to really spark any type of negative reaction from the gangs. That was one of the main things that I saw that I always resisted against when I heard, oh, we're going take back the streets or whatever, you know, and we're like yeah, come and try it. I dare you.

LUDDEN: But was there a sense that you could - you said you were able to make a quick buck - that was, you know, an attraction of the gang and that we know the drug traffickers are moving in. Was there a sense you could get away with something that you couldn't elsewhere?

Mr. CARROLL: Oh, yeah. It was a lot easier on the reservation, you know? I mean, the resources of law enforcement to be spread out on a wide rural area was one of the biggest advantages that we had, you know, when it was - when we were running drugs or when we're dealing is that, you know, the place that we could hide was the reservation. That was the place to which to run and stash things, you know, because, I mean, the resource and lack of law enforcement to be in place would just stop those, you know, I mean very rarely did it happen unless someone knew prior that actually called in and pre-notified law enforcement, which is a rare thing.

LUDDEN: All right, just very quickly, we have a few more seconds. Are you all hopeful for the new focus by the Justice Department? Harlan?

Mr. McKASATO: Yeah, you know, I'm real hopeful, because in past administrations you know, there hasn't even been a focus. And so, any type of focus is going to be helpful. But again, I think it's going to take a combined effort. I think, you know, people are going to have to make a connection to the - at the ground level and help to restore their dignity. And like Natay said, you know, offer them some respect.

LUDDEN: Uh-huh.

Mr. MCKASATO: And with that along with…

LUDDEN: We're going to have to leave it there. So sorry. Harlan McKasato is a member of the Sac and Fox tribe and host of radio program "Native America Calling" and joined us from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Also there was Natay Carroll, a former gang member, and we heard from Christopher Grant a national Native American gang specialist and a former chief of detectives in Rapid City, South Dakota. He joined us from his home there. Thank you all so much.

Mr. CARROLL: Thank you.

Mr. McKASATO: Thanks.

Mr. GRANT: Thanks, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: I'm Jennifer Ludden from NPR News.

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