Gang escalation on reservations: nip it in the bud

Glen Lamotte and Frank Niso Caywood speak to Indian youth about gang prevention.

Some gang-style graffiti has appeared at the Fond du Lac Reservation lately, which means this. A few kids are showing a least a mild interest in gang behavior, and it needs to stop. Now.

The way it stops is through community intervention, and that means everyone gets involved.

The topic of gangs in Indian country came up in May during the annual Johnson O’Malley Indian Education Conference held at the FDL Ojibwe School. Glen Lamotte, a former West Coast gang leader, addressed about 60 adults and children about his years as a gang leader followed by a prison sentence of almost six years.

Joining Lamotte was his uncle, Frank Niso Caywood, who specializes in recognizing gang activity levels and Dave Rogers, a former police officer. Caywood and Rogers said that the graffiti that predates organized gang activity is at a low level on the FDL reservation right now. The men saw smatterings of gang-style graffiti at a school playground and on a home.

But that’s the way the evolution of a gang begins, with one or two or three kids becoming curious about gang identification, followed by turf delineation followed by violence.

“It’s a problem you can’t ignore, even if it’s at a low level of exploration,” Rogers said. “The community must not let gangs take root. A community that acts can take care of it.”

Lamotte, 27, the son of an alcoholic father and absentee mother grew up in California in a family very familiar with “random acts of violence.” No one cared for him – his father learned that the best way to calm his five-year-old son was to give him beer.

Lamotte was expelled from two pre-schools and moved with his mother to Oregon. In the sixth grade, he sold drugs. He became a notorious gang leader who never thought he’d live past the age of 21. Lamotte’s saving grace occurred in prison, where he learned about the strengths of his American Indian heritage and history. While in jail, Lamotte became involved with a gang reentry program specially fashioned for American Indians. When men with Lamotte’s criminal history try to find jobs and places to live, they are often turned away. They get frustrated and return to gang life as an easy way to make money.

“Glen is a product of the reentry program,” Rogers said. “They can work, maybe not for everybody, but for a few.”

There’s nothing Indian about gang activity, Rogers said. Urban areas like Los Angeles and Chicago have 100-year histories of gang presence.

The concept is new to Indian Country, and has taken root at a few area reservations including Shakopee, Red Cliff, White Earth and Red Lake. At Red Lake, a volunteer goes out almost every day to paint over gang-style graffiti.

“They have some serious gang problems up there,” Rogers said. The beginning of the problems anywhere is graffiti.”

The paint-over solution is the kind of reaction that Rogers approves of – if kids spread their graffiti as a way to mark territory, then adults should immediately unmark the territory via a can of paint.

Rogers recommends that a broad spectrum of adults become involved in the campaign to stomp out gang activity before it escalates into criminal behavior. He defined a gang as three or more individuals with a common identity who commit crimes.

FDL law enforcement aren’t indifferent to the potential for gang escalation at the reservation. Photographs are kept of gang-style graffiti. Additionally, a FDL police officer, Chris Durfey, is assigned to the schools to monitor any early form of gang behavior: clothes, hand signals, graffiti.

Gang involvement is mostly below the radar screen at Fond du Lac right now, but that changes quickly.

“It could go from level one to level three overnight,” Durfey said. Level three involves violence.

Durfey pointed out that gang members wear certain colors which poses a problem – if a school policy bans the wearing of red, for example, at what point would the policy infringe on student rights?

Those kind of decisions are premature now, and will never come before the school board if the community decides to end any suggestion of gang behavior.

“Gangs present a multi-pronged problem,” Durfey said. “Aunts, uncles, moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas – all need to come together as a single community to resolve this problem.”

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