Native American Gangs: Boys In The Woods

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By Tristan Ahtone | Al Jazeera America 

This is the fifth story in a five-part series on Native American gangs.

A Saturday night in White Earth with the Native Disciples

PONSFORD, Minn. — The boys passed a one-gallon bottle of spiced rum from person to person, waiting for Saturday night on the White Earth Reservation to begin. Cigarette and marijuana smoke curled slowly around the low-hanging light fixtures as caps were twisted off beer bottles and tossed onto counters or into an overflowing trash can.

Senister — who agreed to be interviewed only if he could use a pseudonym — lit a menthol cigarette, took a pull from the rum, and cleared his throat.

“We got members scattered everywhere, but there’s going to be a point when we need everyone in the field,” said Senister to the boys in the room.

Born 33 years ago in Oklahoma, the Ponca tribal member is a leader of the Minneapolis street gang known as the Native Disciples. He had traveled to the reservation to meet new members of the White Earth chapter, encourage morale and conduct something comparable to a military inspection.

“We’re trying to start a chapter in Oklahoma; hopefully we can get that started,” continued Senister. “We’re just trying to get bigger. I want you brothers to understand that.”

Compared to Senister, the Native Disciples of White Earth were children. The twins were the youngest at 16, while Dell, the regional capo for the gang, was the oldest at 19.

“I haven’t met most of you brothers, and there’s other brothers and sisters I haven’t met, but I’m going to make my rounds,” said Senister. “Salute!”

“Salute!” answered the room in unison as beer cans and bottles clinked together in approval.

Native people have endured cultural alienation, the loss of their language and their land, the destruction of family and social structures. They’ve weathered the resulting social dysfunction. For some youth, gangs offer a shelter from those realities.

The largest, most best-known gang in Indian country, Native Mob, has gone quiet after a massive shutdown of the organization in 2013, and while both old and new Native gangs are hoping to take its place, the Native Disciples are likely the only group with the ability to do so.

Instead of feathers and leathers, today’s Indian renegades wear baseball caps and baggy pants. But unlike previous outlaws, they’re as big a threat to their own people as they are to the realities they push back against.

Dell and Gordy visit the grave of Travis Buckanaga. "That's how we got to know Senister,'' says Dell. "Because this guy right here died.''

Dell and Gordy visit the grave of Travis Buckanaga. “That’s how we got to know Senister,” says Dell. “Because this guy right here died.”

Dell dusted snow off Travis Buckanaga’s tombstone while Gordy straightened a plastic wreath and replanted a wooden cross with a blue bandanna tied to it.

“That’s how we got to know Senister,” said Dell as he stood back to admire his cemetery maintenance work. “Because this guy right here died.”

In January of 2013, Native Disciple Travis Buckanaga was shot and killed at a house party near the White Earth Reservation, and Senister, along with other Native Disciples, traveled to the reservation to attend the funeral. By the end of their visit on White Earth, they had recruited half a dozen new members to the Native Disciples and left Dell in charge.

“In the city there’s a lot of action; out here there’s nothing,” said Gordy. “It’s way different from Minneapolis.”

Leading up to the early 1990s, gangs in Minneapolis’ Native American neighborhoods primarily existed for protection. Gangs from Chicago, Detroit and other major cities had begun moving into the area, and Native kids often banded together to resist the growing number of threats. There were groups like the Clubsters, the Naturals and the Death Warriors — small, all-Native gangs going up against larger, primarily African-American, outfits.

The boys get ready to drive to a meeting with members of the White Earth chapter of the Native Disciples.

The boys get ready to drive to a meeting with members of the White Earth chapter of the Native Disciples.

Minnesota’s two most prominent Native American gangs — Native Mob and the Native Disciples — began with the killing of Randy Pacheco.

Randy Pacheco was a Native member of the Vice Lords, a Chicago-based gang that had moved to the Twin Cities, and was shot in 1994 after an altercation with the Bercier brothers.

The Bercier brothers, Joe and Terry, were members of the Shinob-Mob, a small Native gang formed in East Phillips. Terry Bercier was convicted for the murder, while Joe Bercier went free.

With Joe out on the street, Pacheco’s fellow Vice Lords wanted revenge for his death. As per Vice Lord rules, they went to leadership for permission, but when the gang’s all-African-American leaders told them no, Pacheco’s Native compatriots did it anyway and were excommunicated. They formed their own gang: Native Mob.

Of course, the killing of Joe Bercier meant someone would have to pay, and the Gangster Disciples — another Chicago-based gang that had moved to Minneapolis — had ties to the Bercier family.

Tit for tat escalated, and Native members of the Gangster Disciples soon found themselves at war with Native Mob and the Vice Lords. Again, following Gangster Disciple rules, Native members went to their leadership to ask for help as violence intensified. The gang’s African-American bosses turned them down, and the East Phillips Gangster Disciples had to fend for themselves. They eventually split to form the Native Disciples.

Nearly 20 years later, in 2013, local, state and federal officials launched a takedownof Native Mob resulting in dozens of arrests and convictions under the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The gang’s membership wasestimated at more than 200 members across cities and reservations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North and South Dakota, and Native Mob’s crimes included drug trafficking, weapons sales, assault, witness intimidation, murder, human trafficking, sexual assault and racketeering.

Currently, the Native Disciples are working to catch up.

After wrecking their car, the boys try to push it out of a snowy ditch.

After wrecking their car, the boys try to push it out of a snowy ditch.

At a snow-covered, Y-shaped intersection on the White Earth Reservation, the twins’ beastly Chevy Caprice turned left, jerked right, then banked left again before missing its turn and gliding up a hill, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a thicket of trees. The car bounced and jerked, then jackknifed into the air, its headlights illuminating the ice-covered treetops for a moment before returning to earth with a crash, blowing out its two front tires and careening into a ditch.

The engine died and the entire car steamed in the snow. The car’s occupants spilled out, wide-eyed and confused and screaming with laughter.

Senister looked on in disbelief: Almost half of the White Earth chapter of the Native Disciples was now stuck on the side of a snow-covered reservation back road in the middle of the woods. Some of the boys laughed and giggled while others opened fresh beers or walked to the side of the road to pee.

“Dell, where the hell are we right now?” demanded Senister.

“I don’t know, bro,” replied Dell as he took a swig of beer.

“We’re in your neck of the woods, dude, and you got us messed up out here!” yelled Senister. “This is not how capos operate!”

“Yeah,” replied Dell as he finished his beer and tossed it toward the woods.

“You take orders, and if you don’t, we have something for you when you don’t want to listen to us,” said Senister. “You might not know, but we’re a part of something. What do you call that in college?”

Everyone thought about it for a moment.

“A sorority,” someone answered.

“It’s like a sorority, you know what I mean? You gotta keep your people in line,” yelled Senister. “If we have to come up here and show you brothers what to do, we can do that.”

About 45 minutes later a beat-up old minivan skidded up at the scene and opened its doors. The boys scrambled in, then took off toward the liquor store to buy another gallon of spiced rum and meet up with the rest of the crew.

Senister shows his Native Disciples tattoo

Senister shows his Native Disciples tattoo

Dell said he was unable to finish the Native Disciples graffiti on this abandoned house because he ran out of spray paint.

Dell said he was unable to finish the Native Disciples graffiti on this abandoned house because he ran out of spray paint.

Detailed information about gang activity in Indian country is hard to come by. In 2000, the National Youth Gang Center found that 80 percent of Native gang members were male, and that around three-quarters of them were under the age of 18, but its findings were inconclusive as to how many gangs there are in Indian Country. No studies have been done since.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all for Indian country,” said Walter Lamar, a former deputy director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Law Enforcement who now runs his own law enforcement consulting firm. “Gangs are sucking the lifeblood out of some of our communities; then in others, you basically have a group of young people that are engaged in vandalism.”

Native Disciples gang chapters can be thought of a bit like corporate franchises. On the White Earth Reservation, for example, members get to represent the organization and can ask for assistance if war breaks out, but mostly they sell drugs and send a portion of the profits back to the head office in Minneapolis. On White Earth, Dell serves as the gang’s regional capo, but he answers to capos in the city — people like Senister.

In Minneapolis, the Native Disciples rely on three capos to make decisions instead of one boss, so that if disagreements arise there will always be a majority vote on the course of action.

“Most gangs, especially in Indian country, are loose-knit groups of 20, 30, 40 individuals, and one or two people will emerge as the leaders,” said Mike Martin, president of the Minnesota chapter of the Midwest Gangs Investigators Association. “That’s different than having a hierarchical structure like Native Mob has, like the Native Disciples have.”

In 2011, the FBI concluded that most Native American gangs were disorganized, lacked structure, had scarce ties to national-level gangs and could not control large geographic areas or populations. However, gangs like the Native Disciples and Native Mob demonstrate that there are growing exceptions to the rule.

“These kids are not Cosa Nostra; these are not Medellin or Cali cartels, but they are seriously influential and dangerous elements in the community,” said Bryan Kastellic, task force commander of the Wisconsin-based Native American Drug and Gang Initiative. “These are not groups that we ever underestimate.”

Senister checks his cell phone. "Nobody cares about us Natives,'' Senister says. "How we eat. How we live. They don't care. We gotta look out for each other.''

Senister checks his cell phone. “Nobody cares about us Natives,” Senister says. “How we eat. How we live. They don’t care. We gotta look out for each other.”

Senister pulled one of the twins into the living room and leaned in close.

“Take care of that,” he said quietly. “You ain’t got to go overboard, just take care of it.”

“I’ll take care of that,” replied the boy.

“No,” said Senister. “I want to see it. You boys can say you’re going to do it, but whatever.”

The boy nodded dutifully, then looked nervously around the room and out the window to where a small cadre of the boys had gathered in the yard.

“We gotta hold each other accountable, because if we don’t, nobody else will,” said Senister to the boy. “Nobody cares about us Natives. How we eat. How we live. They don’t care. We gotta look out for each other. Now let’s take care of that. You ready?”

“Yeah,” replied the boy.

Senister bent his knees just enough so his eyes were level with the boy’s and looked into his face.

“You ready?”

The boy nodded.

A few minutes later the Native Disciples had made a circle in the yard around one of the boys, who lay on his back in the snow.

“Why are you doing this?” screamed the boy. “I didn’t do nothin’!”

The Native Disciples moved in closer, tightening the circle. The boy wailed.

“Hit him,” someone yelled.

With arrests and indictments having resulted in the temporary absence of Native Mob, a power vacuum exists in Minnesota’s Indian gang world. And while both new and old gangs are eager to fill it, the Native Disciples may be the only group with the organization and manpower to do so.

What the state’s Native gang landscape will look like by the end of the year, or 10 years from now, is hard to predict. Native Mob could return stronger than it was before, it could split into factions, or it could disappear. The Native Disciples might be prosecuted on RICO charges, or expand into chapters as far south as Oklahoma, or be at war again with larger outfits moving into their territory, as they were in the 1990s. Right now, they’re just settling into Indian country, and waiting.

“You can do anything in life, but you have to work for it. Take it. There’s no free lunch,” said Senister. “Anything we’re going to do, we’re going to have to fight for it, or we’re going to have to kill for it.”

http://projects.aljazeera.com/2015/01/native-gangs/native-disciples.html

Native American Gangs: Interview With A Marked Man

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By Tristan Ahtone | Al Jazeera America

This is the fourth story in a five-part series on Native American gangs.

A former member of Native Mob tries to leave ganglife

MINNEAPOLIS — According to Boots, one of the last times someone tried to kill him was when an 8-year-old pulled out a revolver and opened fire.

The boy was a member of the Gangster Disciples, and Boots was a member of Native Mob, a notorious Indian gang based in Minneapolis and known nationally for its ability to function as an organized criminal entity as well as for its propensity for violence.

Luckily for Boots, the boy wasn’t a very good shot.

Since then, Boots has kept his eyes peeled for trouble.

Boots, 19, is one of dozens of Native American gang members who escaped arrest and indictment in 2013 after a massive local, state and federal takedown of Native Mob. With the arrests, the organization has gone underground and, in many places, nonoperational, leaving members like Boots with little to no support to fight off rival gangs or defend themselves from those looking to settle old scores.

Boots, who agreed to go on record if identified by his street name, is in a unique position. With the birth of his son only months ago, he decided to renounce his ties to gang life in order to raise the child. The problem is, his Native Mob former family and old rivals don’t care. A commitment to gang life is a life commitment.

“I can’t be out here. I’m going to run into a pack of people, and I’m going to be by myself,” he said. “Who can I call to come back me up? There ain’t nobody.”

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Boots walks by a Minneapolis highway

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A mural on Leech Lake Reservation, which was a major hub for Native Mob.

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Boots says he’s too scared to carry a real gun these days because police might catch him. Instead, he brandishes a pellet gun in hopes it might scare rivals into leaving him alone.

He heard about Native Mob in second grade. Growing up in the East Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, Boots, an Ojibwe tribal member, had relatives and friends who were involved in the gang.

“I thought it was cool,” he said. “I seen my cousin selling dope, making money, having guns, all that. It was something I wanted to do.”

By seventh grade, he was a full-fledged member and quickly fell in line. Native Mob maintained strict codes of conduct, had hierarchical structures that had to be respected and enforced rules and regulations through violence.

According to Boots, one of the most common forms of punishment was “getting violated,” in which the offender had his hands tied above his head and was given a choice: get beaten on from head to toe for two minutes or get beaten neck to toe for five minutes. If the person getting beaten fell over or passed out, the clock would start over.

“I always chose neck to toe because I’m not gonna let you sock up this,” said Boots as he grinned and pointed at his face. “You know?”

If members broke the rules on drug use — marijuana and alcohol were acceptable, but pills and other hard drugs were not — they would get violated.

“You can’t shoot at nobody without authorization. We like to use big words like that to make us sound official,” said Boots. “Council was the biggest thing. If you miss council, you get violated. Simple as that.”

He said his gun of choice was a silver .38 snub-nose revolver and he regularly carried knives. He began stalking the streets for easy money.

“I loved robbing people. That’s what I used to love doing,” he said. “I used to rob people all down here on Chicago [Avenue] all night.”

Here’s how it worked: Boots, his brother and one other accomplice would take a pellet gun and the snub nose out with them and wander the night looking for people who looked as if they had cash or other valuables. Usually victims handed over everything when Boots put a gun on them. If they refused, he said, he would fire a round into the ground near their feet.

He robbed stores, couples, food stands, anyone who might have had something he wanted. The money went to marijuana, clothes and food. The rush kept him coming back.

He learned about his opposition. There were other gangs, like the Native Vice Lords, Native Disciples, Bloods and Sureños. As a member of Native Mob, Boots quickly learned that his rivals took gang life very seriously.

“When I was just a little boy, I got grown people walking up to me talking about ‘Fuck Native Mob, I’m gonna whoop your ass,’” he said. “There was nothing fun about it. Shooting at people? There ain’t nothin’ pretty about it.”

Leaving gang life is harder than Boots thought. "I'm going to be running into a pack of people and I'm going to be by myself,'' he says. "Who can I call to back me up? There ain't nobody.''

Leaving gang life is harder than Boots thought. “I’m going to be running into a pack of people and I’m going to be by myself,” he says. “Who can I call to back me up? There ain’t nobody.”

This, he said, is how he got his name: After beating a rival gang member unconscious, Boots and an accomplice dragged the boy off the sidewalk to a gutter, then they opened his mouth and made him bite the curb. When the boy woke up, Boots’ friend pulled a gun, and they ordered him not to move. Then Boots stomped the back of the boy’s head, forcing his open mouth onto the curb and spraying blood and teeth across the pavement.

According to Boots, the boy lived.

“It haunts me every day, the things that I did to other people. I wish I could take it back,” he said. “I wish I never robbed people. I wish I never shot somebody.”

He has no plan to atone for his actions, but he does have an escape route: Denver is nearly 900 miles from Minneapolis. It’s there, on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, nestled in the South Platte River Valley, that he dreams of leaving behind his life on the street and becoming a “culinary artist” with a restaurant of his own.

“My [tribe] isn’t rich, but they might help me enough to get a loan to get my own business,” he said. “If the restaurant thing doesn’t work, I’d get a food truck. Right downtown.”

The two things that draw Boots to Denver: the scenery and the marijuana.

“It’s legal,” he said. “Ain’t got to get caught like here for using it.”

Moving may also get him in a good place financially. This summer his son was born, putting new responsibilities on Boots and giving him a new goal: live to the age of 50.

“At least I can be there when he graduates,” said Boots. “Drink my first beer with him. Smoke my first blunt with him. It’s the stuff you get to do with your child. Things that I didn’t get to do with my dad.”

Boots with a knife he carries to protect himself. Many of the people whose names are carved into the table are now dead.

Boots with a knife he carries to protect himself. Many of the people whose names are carved into the table are now dead.

Boots’ mother abandoned him when he was a baby, and his father died at 34. He was bounced from guardian to guardian before renting a room from one of his father’s girlfriends and paying for it with payments he receives from his father’s Social Security.

He has a different plan for his son. He wants to give the boy an Ojibwe name, get him to sun dance, have him go to powwows and help him learn his language. According to Boots, the only thing gang life can offer him now is a prison sentence, like the ones his comrades received, and the thought of being away from his son for years at a time doesn’t sit well with him.

But even seeing his boy is complicated and intrinsically tied to the life he so desperately wants to leave behind. The uncle of the mother of his child is a leader of Moe Mob, a relatively new Native gang in East Phillips, and Boots said he’s constantly on the lookout for those other gang members, making visitation difficult.

Then there’s just getting around town.

There are the Native Vice Lords, the Murder Boys and the Native Disciples on the streets. There may be about a dozen Native Mob guys still around who Boots said he could call, but they’re spread across the Twin Cities, so in a pinch, they’re basically useless.

"It haunts me every day, the things I did to other people,'' Boots says. "I wish I could take it back.''

“It haunts me every day, the things I did to other people,” Boots says. “I wish I could take it back.”

In the dream, Boots saw his deceased father in a beam of light, surrounded by darkness, and his father asked him if he wanted to leave.

“If you have that dream, that means you can leave this world and be with that person,” said Boots. “He asked me if I wanted to leave this world and not be here no more and then I could be with him and be happy.”

He had been waiting for this moment, but faced with the prospect of dying, he suddenly had doubts.

“I always told myself that if my dad ever came and visited me and asked me to leave, I would, because I would be with him,” he said. “But I told him, ‘No, I have things going on. I have a life to live.’”

The two spoke in the darkness. His father asked him how he had been, and Boots talked about his girlfriend and how he wanted to see her again. His father asked again if he wanted to leave, but Boots told him he wasn’t ready.

“He said, ‘All right, son. I love you, and I’ll see you later,’” said Boots. “I woke up that morning crying. Then the U.S. marshals kicked in the door.”

That day, authorities weren’t looking for Boots; they were looking for his brother. When they came for Native Mob, they weren’t looking for him either; they were looking for the group’s leaders.

Whatever guardian angel has stood between Boots and prison may still be there, but he doesn’t want to put it to the test.

Every now and then, he gets a call to attend council with other remaining Native Mob members, but he has yet to be punished for not attending.

“I still got people walking up to me every day talking about ‘Fuck Native Mob this, Native Mob that,’” he said. “I’m just tired of explaining that I don’t bang no more.”

Recently he wrote a letter to a few of his fellow gang members, letting them know he was done with Native Mob, but he’s had no confirmation that he’s been cut loose.

For Boots — despite his dreams for the future, his hopes of being a father and his desire to leave his past life behind — getting out of the gang is one thing. Getting out of gang life is another.

“I don’t believe in heaven, but I damn sure believe in hell,” he said. “When I die, I may go to hell, but I’m trying to make right for what I done in my life. I’m trying to tell my story about how wrong I was.”

http://projects.aljazeera.com/2015/01/native-gangs/native-mob.html

Native American Gangs: AIMing For A Higher Ground

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By Tristan Ahtone | Al Jazeera America

This is is the third story in a five-part series on Native American gangs.

The American Indian Movement hopes to rise again, but a new leader needs to shake gang ties

MINNEAPOLIS — From the plush leather interior of a black Cadillac Escalade, Reuben Crow Feather looked out to the streets and pointed to a corner lit only by the red, yellow and green glow of a changing stoplight overhead and a nearby fast-food sign.

“When I was on the block here in Minneapolis, I would keep a .44 Desert Eagle with one in the chamber with the safety on,” he said. “I wouldn’t have to slide it. All I’d have to do is flip the switch and rock. It was a cannon.”

Crow Feather, a Dakota tribal member, is a big guy. Barrel chested with veiny arms, two long braids and tinted glasses, he regularly displays a toothy grin when talking and has a habit of raising his voice to a threatening decibel when engaged in a monologue.

Convicted of drug trafficking in 2008 and identified by law enforcement as a leader of the Minneapolis-based gang Native Mob — a charge he denies — he is currently on parole and says he makes most of his money dancing and singing professionally at powwows across the nation. He is also preparing for a new step in his life: political activism.

At 38, Crow Feather is poised to become a leader in the American Indian Movement (AIM), an organization that was born on the streets of Minneapolis in the 1960s to protect civil rights and later become an internationally infamous militant Indian organization that took on the federal government.

“We’re the equivalent of the Black Panthers,” said Crow Feather. “But we’re culturally based.”

His ascent to a leadership role in the organization raises questions about how a new generation of AIM leaders will keep the nearly 50-year-old organization alive and relevant for a generation of Native Americans that now fight their battles in court, not through protest or 1960s-style actions. It also raises questions about whether AIM can transcend its role as one of the most polarizing forces in Indian Country politics and whether its new leaders can get beyond their own sordid pasts.

“I’m not a Native Mob chief,” said Crow Feather. “I’m a chief. That’s what I am, and the people will say it — I’m a leader.”

Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Indian Movement and head of the AIM Grand Governing Council, at the group's headquarters

Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Indian Movement and head of the AIM Grand Governing Council, at the group’s headquarters

Religious items that Bellecourt carries include eagle feathers, a rattle and a sacred pipe created just for him with the letters "AIM"

Religious items that Bellecourt carries include eagle feathers, a rattle and a sacred pipe created just for him with the letters “AIM”

Clyde Bellecourt, prepares to give a blessing before a community meal.

Clyde Bellecourt, prepares to give a blessing before a community meal.

While he was in prison, the last thing Clyde Bellecourt ever thought he would do was lead the revolutionary Indian organization AIM into direct battle with the United States.

Born on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota and raised in Minneapolis, he went down a road of alcohol and crime as a young man. By his mid-20s, he found himself in Stillwater Prison, a minimum security penitentiary in the St. Croix Valley outside St. Paul.

One day last fall, Bellecourt and his protege Reuben Crow Feather drove to Stillwater. The two were dressed in ribbon shirts, garments specific to Indian Country and tantamount to a shirt and tie. The two had driven out from Minneapolis to discuss the future of the movement and to see the prison in which AIM began.

“I was in this block,” he said as he walked the edge of Stillwater prison’s razor wire. “I was in here 25 months.”

“Only prison I’ve been in in Minnesota is Sandstone,” said Crow Feather as he walked alongside Bellecourt, eyeing the prison’s 100-year-old walls.

Crow Feather and Bellecourt outside Stillwater prison in Minnesota, where the American Indian Movement in many ways began.

Crow Feather and Bellecourt outside Stillwater prison in Minnesota, where the American Indian Movement in many ways began.

During his time in Stillwater, Bellecourt came into contact with other Native people and began to learn about his culture and traditions, from language to songs and ceremonies. He advocated successfully for the prison to allow Native prisoners to engage in those practices, including religious ceremonies like sweat lodge.

“I started having dreams of being an eagle flying over South Dakota and seeing these beautiful sun dances,” said Bellecourt.

“Even the horses were dancing, and that’s what I wanted for my life. That’s what I wanted to do when I got out.”

“How old were you?” asked Crow Feather.

“When I came in here, I was around 22 or 23.”

“Just a baby,” said Crow Feather.

When Bellecourt was released, he took home what he learned in prison and began organizing with other tribal members living in Minneapolis. The issues affecting his generation included housing, education, employment and police brutality against the city’s Indian population.

An alleyway on the south side of Minneapolis. AIM got its start by organizing safety patrols in the Native neighborhoods of Minneapolis, hoping to monitor police actions against Native Americans.

An alleyway on the south side of Minneapolis. AIM got its start by organizing safety patrols in the Native neighborhoods of Minneapolis, hoping to monitor police actions against Native Americans.

“[AIM] came out of a really, really poor relationship that existed between the Minneapolis cops and the Indian community here,” said Eric Buffalohead, chair of the American Indian studies department at Augsburg College.

Bellecourt and other tribal members began locally organized safety patrols that monitored police actions in Minneapolis’ Native neighborhoods. “They started the AIM patrols, and those went on throughout the ’70s, just looking to protect Native American people,” said Buffalohead.

Within a few years, they had revived the image of longhaired, rifle-toting Indians fighting for their rights and their land and became synonymous with the burgeoning red power movement across the country.

“They got people paying attention to Indian politics for the first time for a very long time in very important ways,” said Mary Stuckey, a professor of communications at Georgia State University. “They provided a positive, stalwart, important kind of option in which assimilation wasn’t the only choice, urbanization was not the only option and that there was such a thing as a culture that was worthy of pride and defense.”

They painted Plymouth Rock red for Thanksgiving, took over Mount Rushmore and in 1972 occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C. A year later they grabbed headlines again in Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

On Feb. 27, 1973, about 200 AIM members drove into the Pine Ridge Reservation’s town of Wounded Knee — where in 1890 the 7th Cavalry massacred more than 300 Native men, women and children — and took control of the town for 71 days, in hopes of removing Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson, whom AIM and many reservation residents perceived as dictatorial, corrupt and pro-assimilation.

By the end of their siege in 1973, two AIM supporters were killed during shootouts with authorities and black civil rights activist Ray Robinson disappeared. By 1975 ,two FBI agents were shot and killed, and prominent AIM member Anna Mae Aquash was murdered.

Local residents were left to deal with the aftermath, and in the years after Wounded Knee and AIM’s departure, the reservation faced bloodshed and terror.

Images of AIM leaders are posted on the side of a utility box, part of a community art project to showcase Native American culture. Among those pictured are Bellecourt, left box, top left; Dennis Banks, an activist and co-founder of AIM, right box, top left; and Leonard Peltier, convicted in the shooting deaths of two FBI agents at Wounded Knee in a controversial trial that is still disputed, right box, bottom left.

Images of AIM leaders are posted on the side of a utility box, part of a community art project to showcase Native American culture. Among those pictured are Bellecourt, left box, top left; Dennis Banks, an activist and co-founder of AIM, right box, top left; and Leonard Peltier, convicted in the shooting deaths of two FBI agents at Wounded Knee in a controversial trial that is still disputed, right box, bottom left.

“Similar to what happened to the Black Panther Party in California that led to the development of gangs in Los Angeles is that you have a lot of youth that are incredibly active, who are alienated,” said Casey Kelly, an associate professor of communications at Butler University who has studied how AIM used media. “The generation before them are in jail or dead, and they’re sort of left with systemic poverty and time on their hands.”

In 1985, Clyde Bellecourt was caught selling LSD to an undercover cop, and in the 1990s, he and his brother Vernon Bellecourt were expelled from the movement for drug sales, collaboration with the federal government against indigenous people and, as a tribunal put it, “high treason against the membership of the American Indian Movement and American Indian people in general” by members of the Autonomous Chapters of the American Indian Movement, based in Colorado and headed by former movement leaders like Russell Means. Five years later, Means publicly accused Clyde Bellecourt and Vernon Bellecourt of ordering the 1975 murder of Anna Mae Aquash after misidentifying her as an undercover FBI agent.

Today two primary factions of AIM exist: the Autonomous Chapters of the American Indian Movement and the American Indian Movement Grand Governing Council, based in Minneapolis and headed by Clyde Bellecourt.

Both of Crow Feather's parents were AIM activists, so they brought him up in his Dakota cultural practices. Here, he sings at a community powwow.

Both of Crow Feather’s parents were AIM activists, so they brought him up in his Dakota cultural practices. Here, he sings at a community powwow.

Reuben Crow Feather has been pegged as a member and leader of the Native Mob by state and federal authorities. He’s been accused of threatening witnesses to testify falsely. He’s been convicted of drug trafficking. He’s broken bread with the leaders of Native Mob, partied with them, been photographed with them and undertaken criminal activities with them. But he says he was never a member.

“I deny it to the end,” said Crow Feather. “I was definitely involved with the gang — I’m not going to deny that — but am I one of them? No.”

The distinction is so fine that the only one who seems to care is Crow Feather.

“I command a respect that’s bigger than the gang,” he said. “I’m more dangerous than a gang member. I’m a dangerous person because I have a heart. I have love. That’s what makes me dangerous to people who would do something against my people.”

Crow Feather’s word for this is “tokala,” which in Lakota roughly means “a traditional warrior who would give his life for his people.” He is working hard to rehab his image from one as a gang member to that of a revolutionary warrior.

Both his parents were AIM members, and he says that, thanks to their activism, he grew up learning the Dakota cultural practices.

At the age of 14, he says, he began sun dancing and taking part in traditional ceremonies. By 18, he had begun committing burglaries and strong-arm robberies, selling marijuana and fighting, and his mother subsequently threw him out of their home.

He eventually spent nearly six years in prison and hopes that today, through his participation with AIM, he can start creating city programs like a halfway house, a place where American Indians who are sincere in their sobriety can participate in spiritual practices, job placement and counseling — even though multiple facilities like that already exist in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in Minnesota.

He’s working to earn a degree in addiction studies and says he hopes things can start coming together for a new American Indian Movement, tackling what he sees as the pressing issues of his generation: substance abuse and cultural loss.

For AIM to survive another 50 years, leaders like Crow Feather will have to find ways to make the organization relevant to a new generation not familiar with ’60s-style revolution and find ways to make amends for the group’s darker years.

“When social movements in general from the ’60s moved off the streets and into the courts, then the particular kind of expertise that AIM brought to bear became less important,” said Georgia State’s Stuckey. “There didn’t need to be the protests because there were court cases. There were gains, but most of those gains came through the courts — and let’s face it, that’s not sexy.”

“I’m more dangerous than a gang member,” Crow Feather says. “I’m a dangerous person because I have a heart. I have love. That’s what makes me dangerous to people who would do something against my people.”

“I’m more dangerous than a gang member,” Crow Feather says. “I’m a dangerous person because I have a heart. I have love. That’s what makes me dangerous to people who would do something against my people.”

Crow Feather steered his Escalade through the South Side of Minneapolis in search of lunch. Clyde Bellecourt sat in the passenger seat. Bellecourt wanted Mexican food from a place called Pancho Villa’s. Crow Feather agreed.

Suddenly a car rolled up on the Escalade’s passenger side and honked its horn. The young driver motioned for Bellecourt to roll down his window.

“What up, bro? We were just talking about Clyde,” yelled the driver, a young man who, Crow Feather explained, also had previous ties to Minneapolis’ Native gang culture. “We were just talking about some AIM shit, then I looked and was like, ‘There goes Reuben and Clyde right there!’”

Crow Feather and Bellecourt laughed, then invited him to lunch. Crow Feather looked at Bellecourt, a man 40 years his senior, and smirked, then turned his Escalade toward Pancho Villa’s, with the young man following.

“See that, man?” said Bellecourt as the car lurched forward. “That’s where the movement is — people riding around in their cars talking about it.”

Crow Feather flashed one of his trademark toothy grins.

“That’s who we are,” said Crow Feather. “We’re the sons of the American Indian Movement.”

http://projects.aljazeera.com/2015/01/native-gangs/aim.html

Native American Gangs: Priestess Dreams

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By Tristan Ahtone | Al Jazeera America

This is the second story in a five-part series on Native American gangs.

At 18, she’s determined to make her way out

MINNEAPOLIS — It’s all kale salads, vegan Sloppy Joes and hip waitresses with tattoos and piercings in the front of the restaurant. In the back, where Priestess Bearstops works, it’s scrubbing, spraying, chopping and rinsing. Everything clangs so loudly, it’s tough to hear the roaring fan overhead or Beyoncé playing on the radio.

“I really want to be a server, but it’s hard trying to get a service job when you don’t have experience,” said Bearstops as she dunked a set of stainless steel pans into a sink full of soapy water. “On top of that, a lot of these chicks are all tatted up, and I’m not tattooed. They’re also predominately Caucasian.”

The 18-year-old Lakota tribal member paused for a moment, shook soapy water from her hands and used the back of her wrist to wipe sweat from her forehead. On a nearby wall, the restaurant’s menu was taped up. The morning brunch specialty: eggs Benedict, a dish Bearstops has never tried.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” she said as she began sorting silverware to throw into the industrial-strength dishwasher. “I’d just be washing that shit anyway.”

Four days a week, Bearstops ties back her long, curly hair, washes dishes and preps food, and every two weeks she gets a $400 paycheck. It’s a dead-end job, but it’s one of the safest places she could be. She says most of her peers are into drugs or have become enmeshed in gang life, and her home life can be just as unstable.

Every day, Bearstops has a choice: Minneapolis street life, the same life that claimed her little brother and still begs for her mother’s attention, or a life a little more ordinary — stable job, high school diploma, car payments, sleeping in an actual bed. She’s navigating a tenuous future in the city that gave birth to the modern Native American street gang.

Priestess Bearstops cleans up at the end of her shift at a health food restaurant in Minneapolis

Priestess Bearstops cleans up at the end of her shift at a health food restaurant in Minneapolis

Priestess Bearstops prepares to sort clean silverware

Priestess Bearstops prepares to sort clean silverware

“You can’t be around here vulnerable out in these streets because people will try you,” said Bearstops as she took a long drag off a Black & Mild cigar and exhaled a thick cloud of white smoke into the air.

Dusk was settling and she crossed her arms and looked down a tree-lined street in the East Phillips neighborhood on Minneapolis’ south side, just a short distance from her high school, American Indian OIC, an alternative school for Native students.

“This is where you’ll catch girls giving blow jobs in cars in alleyways; this is where you find that shit happening,” she said as she took another puff of her Black & Mild. “There are some families whose grandmothers did it, so that’s all they know. Some of my friends do that.”

Since World War II, Minneapolis’ Native American population — primarily from the surrounding Anishinaabe, Dakota and Ho-Chunk communities — has grown and flourished in the East Phillips neighborhood on the city’s south side, turning it into one of the most prominent urban Indian centers in America.

In the 2010 census, more than 7,500 Native people had addresses in Minneapolis, while more than 25,000 hailed from the Twin Cities metro area.

Around 61 percent of Native Americans in Minnesota are employed, while about 20 percent of homeless youth between 12 and 17 identify as Native American.

In Minnesota, nearly 20,000 students self-identify as Native American, and justunder half of them graduate from high school.

Bearstops with her mother Reva in their kitchen.

Bearstops with her mother Reva in their kitchen.

My mom was in treatment, and when she got out of that treatment facility, she came down here,” said Bearstops as she passed one of her old homes in East Phillips. “For a while she was sober and everything was good.”

However, Bearstops said her mother met a man who quickly moved in; then he began bringing his friends around, and in turn, they brought other people in.

“Pretty soon it’s not even my house anymore,” she recalled. “I saw that house go to shit in bits and pieces.”

Bearstops fought with her mother over the situation and ended up homeless soon after.

During that time she took up smoking cigarettes and weed — both of which she has now quit, save for the occasional Black & Mild — and threw a wrench in her high school career. Now 18, she is expected to graduate in 2015, a year later than what she had originally intended. She hopes to apply to the University of Minnesota after graduation and perhaps, someday, a place like Harvard.

The University of Minnesota was one of the first institutions to offer an American Indian Studies program, and organizations like the National Indian Education Association and American Indian Movement also owe their beginnings to the Mill City. Today, it’s one of the major organizing points for activists working to change the name of Washington’s NFL Team, and some of Indian Country’s best-known artists, writers and educators have called the Twin Cities home.

Minneapolis’ Native neighborhoods are also blossoming with Native businesses, public art installations, a cultural corridor and thriving community resources ranging from health centers to housing services run for Indians by Indians. There are enough Native people walking the streets that they don’t seem out of place; they hang out in coffee shops, run art galleries and go about their daily lives.

Bearstops prepares to dance at a community powwow.

Bearstops prepares to dance at a community powwow.

Distrust of police is still part of daily life for the city’s Native American community. The American Indian Movement was born in Minneapolis in the 1960s because of police brutality in the Indian community, and in the 1990s, Minneapolis police arrested two intoxicated American Indian men and decided to transport them to a hospital in the trunk of their car.

With the collapse of the Somali government in 1991 and the ensuing civil war, refugees from East Africa have poured into Minnesota and made much of the city’s south side their home. One result of the newcomers’ arrival has been serious racial tensions that have escalated into violence in some cases.

In the 1980s, small street gangs began to form in East Phillips, groups with names like the Clubsters, whose primary purpose was protection against other small Native gangs and against non-Natives moving into the neighborhood. By the 1990s large, organized street gangs with years of experience, such as the Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples, began making East Phillips their home. For many Native youths, joining or forming new groups to fight established street gangs became the only options.

Bearstops has been living on Minneapolis’ north side for a few months, but still commutes south to go to school. However, living away from East Phillips hasn’t kept trouble away from her or her family. After becoming affiliated with the Pirus, a gang derived from the California Bloods, Bearstops’ 15-year-old brother, Priest, committed armed robbery twice, and is now in jail. Priestess’ mother, Reva Bearstops, has struggled continuously with substance abuse and faced numerous altercations with the law, job loss, a rotating cast of boyfriends and housing evictions.

“I want to get out of Minneapolis; I want to venture off and try new things and explore and travel,” said Bearstops. “I want to leave, but there’s always that notion in my head that says, ‘Who’s going to take care of your family?’”

Bearstops listens to her mother, Reva, talk about why she wanted her children to live in the city and not on the reservation.

Bearstops listens to her mother, Reva, talk about why she wanted her children to live in the city and not on the reservation.

Save for a couch, a coffee table, a television stacked on top of cardboard boxes and a large dream catcher mounted to the living room wall, the apartment was nearly bare.

Reva Bearstops and Priestess sat across from each other at a small, round side table supporting a lamp that had seen better days, a pack of Newports between them. Reva lit a cigarette.

“So, Mom, what brought you here?” asked Priestess. “By here I mean Minneapolis.”

There are a little over 500 miles between Minneapolis and the town of Wanblee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which Reva Bearstops originally called home.

She left the Pine Ridge Reservation in the fall of 1988 because her cousin needed a ride to Minneapolis. Reva was 18 at the time, and had a 2-year-old daughter, Vicky, but agreed to drive. Once they arrived in the city, Vicky became ill and had to be hospitalized.

“My cousin begged me to drive her back to Wanblee, so I drove her back on the condition that she would bring me back up the next day,” Reva told her daughter. “She didn’t. So I ended up hitchhiking up here five days after I left my baby in the hospital.”

Once back in the city, Reva had no way to return to Wanblee but landed a job at a McDonald’s in Minneapolis and found housing. At the behest of her mother back in Pine Ridge, Reva stayed in the city.

“She wanted us to have better opportunities here in what she called white people’s land,” said Reva. “She never wanted us to stay on the reservation.”

According to the Department of Justice, between 1992 and 2002 Native Americans experienced violent crimes at double the rate of the rest of the nation; Native American women saw violent victimization more than twice as often as women overall; and around 60 percent of Native Americans who became victims of crime described their attackers as white.

According to the Government Accountability Office, between 2005 and 2009, more than half of all violent crimes in Indian country referred to authorities for prosecution were declined.

It’s realities like these that have kept Reva in Minneapolis instead of raising her kids where she grew up.

“A lot of my life wasn’t being like you kids were allowed to be,” said Reva to her daughter. “I was raised an adult.”

Reva said alcoholism was a fact of life in her household, and she was often left to fend for herself and her siblings.

“One time we didn’t have no food in the house and the kids were all hungry,” recalled Reva. “There was 11 of us, so I dug in the ground and I dug up a whole bunch of earthworms.”

She said she then went looking for eggs, but could only turn up a few blue robin’s eggs. She brought them home, built a fire and began cooking.

“The worms don’t sound good when they’re frying,” said Reva. “But I cracked the eggs over them and made scrambled eggs with earthworms.”

Reva took a drink from a plastic cup full of ice water. The ice clinked and knocked, and she looked her daughter in the eyes.

“I strive for you to be better than me, to do better,” she said. “That’s why for me it’s so important that you graduate from high school to do something more with yourself, to enhance your life as best you can. I know you can.”

Outside someone honked a car horn. Priestess sat motionless, listening to every word her mother had to say.

“You are my pride and joy,” said Reva. “I’m proud of you. And that’s something you should always know. I love you.”

“I love you too, Mom,” replied Priestess. “I love you too.”

Reva put out her cigarette and checked her phone.

Bearstops prepares to board a bus around midnight after her shift has ended. The ride home takes about an hour.

Bearstops prepares to board a bus around midnight after her shift has ended. The ride home takes about an hour.

Priestess Bearstops sat on a bus stop bench and took a swig of bottled water as the clock crept up on midnight. Dressed in a black shirt, black pants and black boots, she carried a backpack almost as big as she was.

“I have a lot of friends and associates that say I’m fake now because I’m not kickin’ it all the time,” said Bearstops. “So when I’m trying to do my classwork and maybe I’m not talking and gabbing with everybody, all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Oh, she’s fake.’”

The streets were empty, and Bearstops spotted the bus, then stood up to flag it down. The ride would take about 45 minutes, and by 8:30 the next morning she would need to be on the bus again in order to make it to school by 9:20.

Every day, Priestess Bearstops has a choice: a regular life, or a place on the streets. Many of her peers come from exactly the same background as she has and have made a very different decision, yet Bearstops has said no, and continues on.

“You get to a point where you realize that there’s so much more to life than the ’hood,” said Bearstops. “It’s not what I want for my life.”

http://projects.aljazeera.com/2015/01/native-gangs/priestess-dreams.html

Native American Gangs: A Cross To Bear

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By Tristan Ahtone | Al Jazeera America

This is the first story in a five-part series on Native American gangs.

James Cross knows why Native American kids join gangs

MINNEAPOLIS — It was Sunday, game day, and James Cross turned down the television volume, rose from his armchair and lifted his purple Vikings windbreaker to show off his tattoos.

“This is a drive-by scene,” he said as he pointed to the image on his stomach. “I never finished it, though. I was going to put ‘Do another drive-by to make another mother cry.’”

He turned around and pulled the purple windbreaker up to show off his shoulders.

“I got forks on the back, which represents the Disciples,” said Cross, referring to a tattoo of two hands making the sign of the Latin Gangster Disciples. “Then I’ve got tattoos on my face. I had a teardrop, but we covered it up with a feather just so everybody wouldn’t be intimidated and I could get a job. Everybody knows a teardrop is for murder.”

When they were around the age of 7, he and his twin brother first hooked up with the Latin Gangster Disciples. One day, he said, they were hanging around with the older guys and someone said, “Hey, go get that cash register,’’ referring to a nearby convenience store.

“We went and got that cash register,’’ Cross said. “There was an old man working there, couldn’t do nothing, couldn’t hardly move, so it was an easy hit.’’

Not that easy. They got caught and he began a long string of encounters with the law. Now 48, he has spent almost half his life in prison. That time has taken a very serious toll on his life.

“My kids, they’ve been on drive-by shootings with me when they were babies and little kids,” said Cross. “I wish I’d never showed them that — how to live, how to be a gang member.”

His youngest son, Jerome Cross, decided not to become a Latin Gangster Disciple like his father. Instead, he joined up with the Shotgun Crips and is now serving a 33-year sentence for murder.

“He went from innocent to fucking gangster,” said James Cross. “He’s probably the smartest one of all of us, but he just wanted to be like Dad. He won’t be out till 2029 or 2030.”

Compared with their African-American or white counterparts, Native American gangs and gang members are a relatively new phenomenon, tracing their roots back to the 1980s and ’90s, when city gangs introduced themselves to Indian Country and began recruiting.

The young men and women joining these gangs come from myriad backgrounds, some involved with Native American cultural and spiritual practices, others from broken homes and some even from supportive, two-parent, middle-class homes.

The growing threat of Native gangs is not a retelling of cowboys and Indians set against the backdrop of a modern black market. It’s a story about how historical trauma, federal policy and tribal pride have created a new Indian problem: organized crime.

The question remains: Why do the youths of Indian Country join gangs?

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Gerald Cross and Greg Franson, a former gang member and a friend of the brothers

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The Latin Disciples handshake.

James Cross and his twin brother, Gerald Cross, sat outside smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. A pair of pit bulls wrestled for a stick at their feet, and old minivans and sedans rolled through the streets, the boom and beat of hip-hop music occasionally rattling trash cans and the plastic side paneling of houses.

“When he goes to jail, I can feel it,” said James as he pointed to his brother. “We never fought one on one. We made sure that people knew if you messed with one Cross, the other one was coming. That’s how we grew up. To this day, it’s still like that.”

Both of them were taken from their Anishinaabe and Dakota parents at the age of 4 because of alcoholism and were adopted by a white family. Gerald says the home was safe, clean and a loving environment, but James says he knew he didn’t belong. The two joined the Latin Gangster Disciples primarily because it was something to do and seemed cool.

“Just being able to count on people, not feeling like you were rolling alone — just seemed like it was a good thing,” said Gerald. “We were part of something. We were clicking. We had things.”

If it weren’t for the tattoos, it would be hard to tell the two apart. James has the gang signs for the Latin Gangster Disciples on his back, while Gerald has them on his chest. Whereas James has a drive-by scene on his stomach, Gerald’s is tattoo-free; instead, he has a city scene down his arm with “Most hated 612” — 612 being the Minneapolis area code.

While James has elected to take the straight life, Gerald still dabbles in drugs and occasionally runs the streets. “You know right from wrong,” said Gerald. “But you’re going to do what you’re going to have to do. If you can accept the consequence of getting caught, then do what you’ve got to do.”

The growling pit bulls grew tired of the stick, and one waddled into the shade to yawn, snort and nap while the other sat between the Cross brothers, hung its tongue out and drooled into the grass.

The twins pose in Gerald's back yard in Minneapolis. "We never fought one on one,'' said James, right. "We made sure people knew if you messed with one Cross, the other one was coming.'' (Click to enlarge images)

The twins pose in Gerald’s back yard in Minneapolis. “We never fought one on one,” said James, right. “We made sure people knew if you messed with one Cross, the other one was coming.”

Minnesota has nine criteria, and individuals have to meet three of them to be considered a gang member. They include being arrested with a gang member, wearing clothing identified with a gang, appearing in a photo with a gang member engaging in gang activity, being identified as a gang member by a reliable source and being regularly observed with gang members.

“There is a problem around the definition of a gang,” said Katie Johnston-Goodstar, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work. “It starts to become a spectrum of ideas rather than a single entity.”

According to her, there are good gangs, and there are bad gangs. Good gangs could be viewed as a natural, almost necessary reaction to hostile environments, providing structures for young people to have appropriate identity development — and in Indian Country, where history has had serious effects on people’s sense of identity, to cultivate a healthy conception of being Native.

“We need to talk about all the disruption of community that happened through continual polices and practices over the last 200 years,” said Johnston-Goodstar. “We’re still feeling those effects and impacts and that trauma and ongoing trauma.”

For instance, in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Santee Sioux men in the largest mass execution in American history, 80 miles south of Minneapolis in the town of Mankato. The hanging came in the aftermath of the Minnesota Uprising, in which Dakota tribal members attempted to drive white settlers from their territory after being robbed, cheated and starved by local, state and federal officials. Those who weren’t hanged were removed to Nebraska, and over the next 100 years, the area’s remaining tribes and bands underwent brutal changes — moving to reservations, sending culture and tradition underground and migrating from their homelands to cities like Minneapolis.

Between 1992 and 2002, Native Americans came into contact with violent crime atdouble the rate of the rest of the nation;around 60 percent of victims described their attackers as white. And between 2005 and 2009, over half of all violent crimes that took place in Indian Country were declined by authorities for prosecution.

“A lot of times, we just want to say, ‘Oh, this kid is bad,’” said Johnston-Goodstar. “But if we look at the community history, if we look at their personal history, if we look at chemical dependency in the home, it’s all these other environmental impacts that are really giving them little to no choice.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Native American children in Minnesota are six times as likely to make contact with child protective services than white children, eight times as likely to experience neglect and 12 times as likely to spend time in out-of-home care.

A nightime portrait of the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, a city which has become one of the most prominent Native American urban centers in the country.

A nightime portrait of the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, a city which has become one of the most prominent Native American urban centers in the country.

“From the inside, it’s about protection, it’s about positive identity development around a cultural-historical presence and possibly some criminal activity on a misdemeanor kind of level,” said Ross Roholt, a member of the gang assessment team at the University of Minnesota. “The bigger piece is that these groups come together to protect themselves and to create a space to see themselves as Native.”

In 1993 two Minneapolis police officers found two Native American men who were passed out drunk, handcuffed them, threw them in the trunk of their car and drove around town before delivering them to a hospital. According to Human Rights Watch, the officers claimed that they were worried about the men and wanted to get them to a hospital quickly. One of the officers had been repeatedly accused of arresting and driving people to the Mississippi River to beat and interrogate them. In the 1960s, the American Indian Movement was founded in Minneapolis to protect Native people from police brutality.

“I don’t think that the gangs are all that different than the American Indian Movement in a lot of ways,” said Eric Buffalohead, chairman of the American Indian studies department at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. “It’s about protecting yourself in a culture of violence.”

Today new, international pressures affect many cities with Native communities. Somali refugees have begun making the South Side of Minneapolis home and now live in the same neighborhoods as Natives, sometimes displacing families.

“It’s created some interesting territorial skirmishes and problems with the Somali gangs versus the Native gangs,” said Buffalohead. “It’s created this really interesting, supermulticultural situation but also troubling because everyone wants their piece of the pie, and when you’re at the bottom of the barrel, fighting for scraps, things can be tough.”

According to data from 2007, fewer than half of Native Americans over age 25 had earned a college or graduate degree. A 2014 report asserted that Native American teens experience the highest suicide rate in the country.

“It’s easy to sensationalize gang violence. It’s easy to sensationalize crime,” said Oliviah Walker, a member of the gang assessment team. “It’s easy to put ‘Native Mob’ in a handful of newspapers and just have it blow up because it takes the focus away from systemic and structural violence that occurs in our communities.”

"I wanted to be the toughest, scariest known dude,'' said James Cross. "But last time I got locked up, all my sons and wife came to see me and it just broke me down.''

“I wanted to be the toughest, scariest known dude,” said James Cross. “But last time I got locked up, all my sons and wife came to see me and it just broke me down.”

James Cross ended his career on the streets in prison and in tears.

“I wanted to be the toughest, scariest known dude,” he said. “But last time I got locked up, all my sons and my wife came to see me, and it just broke me down.”

They had a message for him: Come home, stop with the drugs, stop the gang activities, and stop the violence. Most important, they told him they loved him.

“Man, that was the hardest thing,” he said. “When it comes to people telling you they love you and you know deep down they love you for real? I couldn’t stop crying. And crying in jail? Was that hard to cover up.”

Today Cross works as a dishwasher at a Native community center in Minneapolis. His wife has health problems, and he cares for his granddaughter and his sons. Because of his tattoos, most jobs turn him away. Because of his arrest history, others won’t hire him.

On the weekends, he helps run sweat lodges for anyone who wants to participate, including current and former gang members. He also runs a motivational speaking program, Real Talk Native, in which he talks to high school students about the dangers of joining gangs.

“I tell kids, ‘If you’re really into changing and getting out of the gang, it’s possible,’” said Cross. “I try to get these kids to find a better life.”

Seated in an armchair in his purple Vikings windbreaker with tattoos on his face, neck and arms, he settled in to watch the game. The front door to his home was open, a breeze blew through the screen, and outside the sun was shining.

“It’s hard to be good, you know?” said Cross. “When you’re so used to just dealing with everything with violence? That’s why everybody can’t even believe I’m doing this.”

http://projects.aljazeera.com/2015/01/native-gangs/