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Youth gangs on American Indian reservations and Canadian First Nations reserves are more recently established, smaller and less organized than urban youth gangs, leaving open the possibility that timely prevention and intervention could be successful.

Study: Historical Trauma Plays Role in Youth Gangs

Tanya H. Lee

Youth gangs on American Indian reservations and Canadian First Nations reserves are more recently established, smaller and less organized than urban youth gangs, leaving open the possibility that timely prevention and intervention could be successful, says Dane Hautala, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Les Whitbeck, a strong proponent of the position that indigenous adolescent development follows a unique path, is Hautala’s dissertation advisor and a co-author, along with Kelley J. Sittner, of a study on indigenous youth gangs just published in the journal Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice.

The paper, based on a longitudinal study of indigenous youth that began in 2002, looked at risk factors for gang involvement, membership and initiation among 646 kids ages 10-12 through 18-20 living on reservations and reserves. A total of 6.7 percent of the kids reported gang membership and 9.1 percent reported gang initiation over the course of the study, which was designed to show which risk factors experienced by young adolescents (ages 10 to 12) were predictive of gang involvement later.

The FBI’s “2011 National Gang Threat Assessment—Emerging Trends” describes the growth of gangs in Indian country, first documented in the landmark 2004 U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention study, “Youth Gangs in Indian Country,” as a serious concern with reservation-based gangs strengthening their ties to urban gangs and pursuing criminal activities such as drug distribution, money laundering, assaults, and intimidation.

Testifying before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 2009, Oglala Sioux Tribal Judicial Council Chairman Hermis John Moussearu said, “We have identified at least 39 gangs operating on our reservation in a community of roughly 50,000 plus members.” A recent survey, he said, showed that “55 percent of those students surveyed reported being a victim of gang-related activity; 72 percent reported having been threatened personally by a gang or gang member; and only 65 percent reported that they felt safe from gang activity at school. Only 35 percent of those surveyed said they felt safe from gang-related activity in their own immediate community.”

The UNL study, “Prospective Childhood Risk Factors for Gang Involvement Among North American Indigenous Adolescents,” found that “per capita family income tends to be a very persistent risk factor. Lower family income predicted greater gang involvement. Parental monitoring—a lower level of monitoring by parents—parents who don’t know where the kid’s at at any given time—predicted higher gang involvement.”

Another factor that stood out was racial discrimination. “Adolescents who perceive more racial discrimination in early childhood [ages 10 to 12] had higher later gang involvement,” says Hautala. It is this finding that is unusual. “The one risk factor we looked at I don’t think anyone else has looked at is perceived racial discrimination. I think that’s really a function of nobody having measured that in previous research.”

The perception of racial discrimination is a “very culturally-based, racially-based stressor,” says Hautala.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher Dane Hautala says risk factors for youth gang involvement are influenced by history and culture. (Courtesy of Craig Chandler/University of Nevada Las Vegas Communications)

Gang prevention—anywhere—has been extremely difficult, he says. “For the most part other gang prevention programs in the urban setting really haven’t been very successful or have been very mildly successful. There’s really not a lot out there that works … [but] I think useful prevention/intervention programs could still be implemented” in Indian country because youth gangs are not as entrenched there as they are in urban communities. “Because indigenous gangs are in their early developmental stages, prevention, and intervention programs may be highly effective at thwarting long-term growth and organization of gangs,” the paper reads.

Such programs, Hautala believes, would have to take into account the particular historical and cultural contexts of indigenous gangs, including the community and the individual’s experience of historical losses and historical trauma. Risk factors—stressors—are shaped by history and play out in contemporary contexts, so implementing prevention and intervention strategies developed for urban gangs will probably not be successful among American Indian youth on reservations, he says.

Hautala says the research did bring to the fore another point that deserves further study. Even though the impact of stressors is cumulative in terms of predicting gang involvement, “We found that at the highest level of cumulative risk there is only about a 50 percent probability of gang involvement. Stated differently, it indicates that even the most at-risk youth are more likely to not join a gang than end up in one during adolescence.”

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