The FBI calls it the “silent crisis in Indian County.” Crime related to gangs and drugs is on the rise on Native American Reservations. Tuesday, KELOLAND Investigates looked into the death of a young man. While it’s not known yet if gang activity was related, his death is suspicious. Now, young people talk about how drug and gang life can take over.
Youth appreciation day at St. Francis School is a way to let kids know they matter on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.
Tribal elders know these attendees are the most vulnerable to be preyed upon by gangs.
“A lot of these younger kids are impacted by that; gang violence. Some of them identify with Crips or Bloods,” Tribal President Rodney Bordeaux said.
The gang mentality began infiltrating Native American Reservations back in the 1990s. And over the years their presence has grown here. But now they are recruiting members who are younger and younger.
Angela Kennecke: Is there a gang problem on this reservation?
Israel Sharp Fish: I would have to say yes–due to the fact that the families on the reservation are gang associated; with GDs or Bloods
KELOLAND Investigates was allowed to speak openly with teenagers on the Rosebud Reservation about what they see happen with gangs. Their answers may shock you.
“I live on the rez; it’s everywhere. It’s just out there–it’s easy. I see it every day,” Devon Spotted War Bonnet said.
“There’s always at least one kid in the group who’s in a gang. Maybe it’s because we are easy targets. Brooklyn Iron Heart said.
“Until I was 7, I grew up in a pretty good home; household, until my dad started drinking, my mom lost her job. And they broke up,” Israel Sharp Fish said.
Now 17, Israel Sharp Fish’s life has been heavily influenced by gangs. He joined one at just eight-years-old.
“My dad wasn’t around to be a father figure. My mom was an alcoholic. I didn’t know what to do, so I just went out and used my anger and started fights, troubles and I was getting picked on by gang members of GDs and I just decided to become a Blood,” Sharp Fish said.
That led to Sharp Fish trying meth at just 13.
“I didn’t know what the drug was, they said just try it out. I tried it out, took a hit and it was meth. At first I liked it, but I saw what it did to families, how it destroyed homes. It turns you against your own family members. They’ll even dare you to kill someone,” Sharp Fish said.
For 16-year-old Devon Spotted Eagle, the problems started when his grandmother, who was raising him, died.
“Before my grandma passed, I was in a good position to where school was the main thing you know, friends–everything was stable. And when she passed it was like the foundation completely went under,” Spotted Eagle said.
He was 15 and homeless.
“A lot of places where I’d stay at and stuff, where I wouldn’t have no place to stay, there was a lot of drug use,” Spotted Eagle said.
“Our gang problem turned more into a drug problem; a more methamphetamine problem,” Captain Crow Eagle said.
Rosebud Sioux Tribal Police Captain Iver Crow Eagle is troubled by gang influence on tribal youth.
“They tend to go the culture that they think–the perception that it’s cool to be a gangster, or a gang member–that perception of family, wanting someone that wants them, Capt. Crow Eagle said.
“Parents around here, aren’t really parents, so they go looking for their own family I guess,” Brooklyn Iron Heart said.
“I talk to kids as young as 3rd, 4th, 5th grade, starting there because unfortunately some of these kids come from families where there’s an addiction problem that’s entrenched within the family and has for 2-3 generations,” Grant said.
Chris Grant is a former Rapid City Police Detective and leading Native American gang expert.
“There’s nothing within Native American culture that connects to being a gang member. Part of the reason some of these young people in Indian Country move and embrace the gang subculture is because they’re disconnected from their own traditional culture,” Grant said.
“It’s not us at all. There’s been resurgence in our efforts to go back to our traditions: the sun dances, some of our ceremonies—we see a lot of our children get involved in that and we see some positive results with that,” Bordeaux said.
For both Sharp Fish and Spotted War Bonnet, sports have been their way out of gang activity and have helped them stay in school–a school immersed in Native Lakota culture.
“What my grandma always told me–finish school and make something of myself–and that’s what I want,” Spotted War Bonnet said.
Spotted War Bonnet hopes to study biomedical engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines. Sharp Fish has his sights set on Duke and now sees himself as a role model for younger children.
“I share their pain. I know what they went through; the trauma. There are some kids now that look up to me and that’s really opened my heart. I really want to change their future. I really want to change the rez; the reservation,” Sharp Fish said.
“There’s got to be enforcement, there’s got to be prevention and there’s got to be intervention. All three of those have to be working in concert with one another to solve the problem,’ Grant said.
And perhaps most importantly, rejecting outside gang culture.
“And identifying who they are as a Native American, Lakota,” Bordeaux said.
Grant emphasizes that most Native Americans living on the reservation are not taking part in gang violence. But he says just a small number of people who are can cause an inordinate amount of fear and criminal activity.