Recent studies have reported alarming levels of violence in Indian country.1 Researchers have found that American Indians and Alaska Natives experience a crime rate of 656 incidents per 100,000 residents, compared with a crime rate of 506 incidents per 100,000 residents in the general U.S. population (Hickman, 2003). In addition, Indian country communities suffer from a violent crime rate that is two to three times greater than the national average (Wakeling et al., 2001). The escalation of violence among youth in these areas is of particular concern to juvenile justice officials and community members (Greenfeld and Smith, 1999; Wakeling et al., 2001). Anecdotal reports and official records from juvenile justice officials (i.e., tribal courts and probation and law enforcement officers) in a number of Indian country communities indicate increased levels of crime associated with youth gangs. Each year since 1995, the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC) has surveyed law enforcement agencies throughout the country about gang activity. However, tribal police departments are not included in the survey sample, and detailed data about youth gang activity in Indian country have been largely absent.

In 2001, NYGC developed and implemented the 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country (see “Survey Design and Method” for a detailed discussion of the survey). All federally recognized Indian communities were surveyed to measure the presence, size, and criminal behavior of youth gangs in Indian country. This Bulletin presents data regarding the presence and effect of youth gang activity in Indian country and provides an overview of programmatic responses to the problem. When appropriate, the Bulletin compares findings from this survey to those from a national sample and a subset of jurisdictions that closely resemble Indian country communities in size and geographic location. The survey findings are also compared to relevant contextual data from a field study of gangs in the Navajo Nation (Armstrong et al., 2002).

Survey Design and Method

Before designing the 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country, the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC) consulted earlier research on gang activity in Indian country communities. This research was extremely limited and consisted mainly of a small number of descriptive reports that reference gangs (Nielson, Zion, and Hailer, 1998; Coalition for Juvenile Justice, 2000) and regional and national surveys (Hailer, 1998; Juneau, 1997, 1998).

Findings from two surveys conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 1997 and 1998 included law enforcement contacts, a brief description of the local gang situation, and the types of criminal activity associated with gang members (Juneau, 1997, 1998). The later survey, which focused on Indian country communities in the West, Northwest, and Dakotas, covered basic definitions, names and locations of specific gangs, gang-related crime, and law enforcement responses to gang activity (Juneau, 1998).

One of the more comprehensive studies included findings from data gathered via a survey of tribal and BIA law enforcement agencies serving Indian country communities (Hailer, 1998). This study provided a baseline assessment of the extent of gang presence, gang characteristics, and law enforcement responses to gangs in Indian country communities. Additionally, a field study of youth gangs in the Navajo Nation provided data from interviews with gang members and agency stakeholders, results of community focus group meetings, an examination of relationships and influences from outside the reservation, and an explanation of the relationship between cluster housing and gang formation (Armstrong et al., 2002).

Although previous research helped shape the survey approach, NYGC determined that further consultation with other knowledgeable sources was necessary before the survey’s actual development and implementation. NYGC decided to draw on the knowledge of experts in the field to ensure that related social issues were covered and that the survey language and data collection effort were sensitive to cultural differences. NYGC consulted with advisors from federal agencies and tribal organizations as it developed the study methodology and survey instrument. Advisory group participants included NYGC research staff, researchers from the Center for Delinquency and Crime Policy Studies, representatives from BIA and the Department of Justice, and staff from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Health and Human Service’s Indian Health Services, the National American Indian Court Judges Association, and the National Congress of American Indians. The advisory group recommended the most appropriate methods for collecting data, the unit of measurement, how to construct questions to ensure cultural sensitivity, and whom to target for communitywide information.

Data regarding gang activity are frequently collected from law enforcement officials. In this case, because NYGC wanted to ensure that respondents represented the communities surveyed, it decided a tribal leader would be the initial contact. To increase response rates, NYGC later solicited responses from law enforcement agencies serving those communities that had not responded to the initial inquiry.

Survey Definitions

To ensure that the survey measured what it was designed to measure, NYGC asked the advisory group to define critical concepts in the survey. This Bulletin refers to each respondent tribe, reservation, and Alaska Native village as a “community,” which includes a wide range of settings—pueblos, rancherias, villages, towns, and rural settlements.1 Specifically, the survey defines an Indian “community” as:

Persons of American Indian, Alaska Native, or Aleut heritage who reside within the limits of Indian reservations, pueblos, rancherias, villages, dependent Indian communities, or Indian allotments, and who together comprise a federally recognized tribe or community. Communities also include people who have been recognized by the United States government as a tribe or tribal community, but who do not occupy tribal trust, tribally owned, or Indian allotment lands. Communities are the people and land together or tribal community viewed as a group. Land without the people is not considered a community for the purpose of this survey.

As used in this Bulletin, the concept of community in Indian country applies to a broad spectrum of land and people. Tribes and reservations vary greatly by size, configuration, and the settlement pattern that defines living arrangements. Indian communities located on a contiguous single piece of land containing just one occupied area or only a few occupied areas are similar to neighborhoods or small towns where the inhabitants and the area of land they occupy make up the community. This is the most common setting for Indian communities; however, different community configurations are located throughout Indian country.

Large reservations or more populous tribes located on either a contiguous single piece of land or noncontiguous pieces of land may include towns of various sizes and areas of more dispersed population. Outside of Indian country, these towns and rural areas might be considered separate communities. However, because of the residents’ tribal connection, they are all considered members of one community in this Bulletin. A tribal community (people and land) also may be located in the midst of an urban setting. Some reservation trust lands2 are occupied by more than one tribe. These may have joint or confederated tribal administrative operations, whereas others maintain separate administrations for the different tribes living on the same reservation.

Despite commonly identified features of a youth gang, codified definitions vary (Curry and Decker, 2003; Spergel and Bobrowski, 1990). Using an approach similar to the National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS), this survey defines a “youth gang” as “a group of youths or young adults in your community that you or other responsible tribal members or service providers are willing to identify or classify as a ‘gang.’” Therefore, this survey measures youth gang activity as an identified problem among interested community agents. To better understand how respondents defined youth gangs, a series of survey questions asked respondents about the characteristics that guide communities in identifying youth gangs (results are discussed in Defining Youth Gangs). As in NYGS, respondents were asked to exclude motorcycle gangs, hate or ideology groups, prison gangs, or other exclusively adult gangs, which are beyond the scope of this survey.

United States Census Data

NYGC obtained 2000 population figures for Indian country communities from the United States Census Bureau.3 Population data used for this study included only persons who resided within the boundaries of a federally recognized Indian community. For communities in which this figure could not be accurately discerned, population figures were not used. Eighty-four percent (n=483) of the total 577 communities were matched to the population data.

2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country

The final survey instrument was developed using earlier research and input from advisory group meetings. The 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country included questions about the presence or absence of gangs and demographic data regarding gang members and their involvement in criminal activity. General questions about the community, pressing social problems, and law enforcement services were also included.

After the survey was finalized, but before its dissemination, a letter was sent to several associations and organizations soliciting support for the survey. A letter was also mailed to all tribal leaders explaining the purpose of the survey and requesting a contact to whom it could be sent. These initial efforts were beneficial to the survey process and helped establish awareness of survey objectives.

1 In 2001, the Bureau of Indian Affairs provided NYGC with a list of communities then recognized by the agency. This list represented the 561 recognized tribes in the form of 577 communities for which information pertaining to tribal enrollment was individually maintained. NYGC surveyed these communities.

2 Reservation trust lands refer to areas that have been set aside and recognized by the federal government as being held in trust for a particular federally recognized tribe. A variety of federal treaties, regulations, and acts over the years have established these trust areas and have established laws governing sovereign Indian nations.

3 The data sets used were the Census 2000 Redistricting Data Summary File for All American Indian Areas and Alaska Native Areas and the Census 2000 Summary File 1 for American Indian and Alaska Native Areas.

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Youth Gangs in Indian Country OJJDP Bulletin March 2004