Expert encourages tribes to tackle suicide, gangsOACOMA — Gang activity and teen suicide on American Indian reservations need to be addressed together, according to a national gang expert who says there’s a strong connection between the two problems.
By: Dirk Lammers, The Associated Press
OACOMA — Gang activity and teen suicide on American Indian reservations need to be addressed together, according to a national gang expert who says there’s a strong connection between the two problems.
Christopher Cuestas with the National Violence Prevention Resource Center spoke Thursday to a gathering of tribal members and legal and law enforcement officers during a “tribal listening conference” hosted by U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson.
Cuestas said that once a gang emerges in a community, the group establishes itself by recruiting and indoctrinating members. A gang during this stage will dovetail the community’s risk factors, which for Indian reservations include drugs, alcohol, poverty and unemployment — the same ones linked to teen suicide.
Communities need to be proactive to prevent gangs from progressing, he said.
“They begin to evolve within that setting, and eventually they get to the point, if allowed to continue, to entrench themselves,” he said.
The conference is part of a broader initiative by the U.S. Justice Department and the first in the nation because of Johnson’s work as chairman of an American Indian issues subcommittee that reports to Attorney General Eric Holder.
John Mousseau, an Oglala Sioux tribal council member and chair of the judiciary committee, said one of the biggest problems faced by tribes is a lack of resources.
Mousseau, former police chief on the Pine Ridge reservation, said the department’s some 40 officers are charged with keeping about 40,000 residents safe across a reservation that’s about the size of Rhode Island. He’d like to see money for training and hiring officers to “see what we can do with the right tools.”
“We’re never up to date on the gang issues itself and the gang population because it fluctuates so much,” Mousseau said.
“There’s a constant need within law enforcement to constantly retrain and reeducate itself.”
He said Pine Ridge has had some success with establishing a tenant patrol, providing residents with a radio and training so they could report crimes instantly to the police.
“It was a big success,” he said.
Todd Bear Shield, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council, said his tribe has a big problem with gangs and suicide. He said much of it is linked to abuse of methamphetamines.
He recalled one youth who was strung out on meth for four or five days before taking his life.
Cuestas encouraged tribes to make an honest assessment of gang activity on their reservations, identify the risk factors and use innovative and collaborative approaches to combat them.
“Set your long-range plans, but address your short-term objectives now,” he said.
The changes might have to be incremental if there are funding and manpower shortages, “but this subculture needs to know that we’re coming.”
“They need to know that we’re not going to able to overtake our communities and steal our young people from us,” he said.