Findings

Law Enforcement Services

Law enforcement arrangements in Indian country vary from community to community (Wakeling et al., 2001). To measure this variation, the survey asked respondents (n=300) about the types of law enforcement services available in their community. Respondents could indicate the presence of more than one service. Survey responses revealed that tribal law enforcement services were the most common (43 percent of surveyed communities reported having this service), followed by Public Law 280 services2 (35 percent); “other” services such as city/county law enforcement, state police, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (32 percent); Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) law enforcement services (26 percent); and contracted law enforcement (9 percent).

Law enforcement services in Indian country have been characterized in previous research as having limited resources and other problems: for example, officer-to-resident ratios that often do not exceed 2 officers per 1,000 residents; complicated jurisdictional policing authority that depends on the crime committed, the offender, the victim, and the location; and increasing crime rates without an equivalent increase in law enforcement personnel (Wakeling et al., 2001; Hickman, 2003). Given these difficulties, many departments find combating the social problems associated with violence and victimization (including youth gang activity) in these areas to be an arduous task.

Of special concern is the lack of sufficient crime data for these communities, which often prevents them from addressing crime problems effectively. Currently, the Tribal Justice Statistics Assistance Center, operated by the Justice Research and Statistics Association and funded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, provides training and technical assistance for Indian country communities that wish to collect and use statistics more productively (Hickman, 2003). However, policing in Indian country remains an area that requires attention. A collaborative effort among tribal communities, researchers, and policymakers is needed to alleviate the problems faced by tribal communities and to provide effective policing in Indian country (Wakeling et al., 2001).

Youth Gang Activity

Twenty-three percent (n=69) of Indian country respondents3 reported having active youth gangs in their communities during 2000. Seventy percent responded that there was no gang activity in their communities, and 7 percent could not make a determination.4

NYGC obtained population data for 83 percent (n=57) of the communities reporting gang activity. Although only 23 percent of responding Indian country communities reported active gangs, the residents located in these communities accounted for more than 60 percent of the total responding population. The average population of communities reporting gang activity was slightly more than 4,500, compared with a population of slightly fewer than 400 among communities reporting no active gangs. This suggests that larger Indian country communities are more likely to experience gang activity than smaller communities.

By contrast, law enforcement agencies responding to the 2000 NYGC national survey noted a considerably greater degree of youth gang activity, with 40 percent (n=975) of respondents indicating active youth gangs (Egley and Arjunan, 2002). Of the national survey respondents that were similar in size to the Indian country respondents (i.e., the comparison sample), 20 percent (n=85) reported youth gang activity in their jurisdiction.5 Figure 2 compares gang activity across the three samples.

Figure 2: Percentage of Respondents Reporting Youth Gang Activity in 2000, by Sample

Figure 2: Bar graph showing the percentage of respondents reporting youth gang activity in 2000, by sample.

Source: 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country; 2000 National Youth Gang Survey.

Gangs and Gang Members

Figures 3 and 4 show the number of gangs and gang members, respectively, in Indian country communities. The estimated number of youth gangs per community ranged from 1 to 40, with the majority of respondents (59 percent of gang problem areas) identifying 1 to 5 gangs. The estimated number of gang members per community ranged from 4 to 750, with 32 percent of respondents stating there were 25 or fewer gang members in their community.

Figure 3: Number of Gangs Reported by Indian CountryCommunities, 2000 (n=69)

Figure 3: Bar graph showing the number of gangs reported by Indian country communities, 2000

Source: 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country.

Figure 4: Number of Gang Members Reported by Indian Country Communities, 2000 (n=69)

Figure 4: Bar graph showing the number of gang members reported by Indian country communities, 2000.

Source: 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country.

To illustrate gang activity among Indian communities of different sizes, the following analyses compared communities with a population of 2,000 or more (referred to as “larger communities”) and communities with a population of fewer than 2,000 (“smaller communities”).6 Seventeen percent of the smaller communities responding to the survey reported experiencing a gang problem, compared with 69 percent of larger communities. Figures 5 and 6 show the reported number of gangs and gang members, respectively, by community size. Not only did a greater proportion of larger communities report gang activity, these communities were also more likely to report greater numbers of active gangs and gang members per community.

Figure 5: Number of Gangs Reported by Indian Country Communities, 2000, by Community Size*

Figure 5: Bar graph showing the number of gangs reported by Indian country communities, 2000, by community size.

*Smaller communities have a population of less than 2000; larger communities 2000 or more. Source: 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country.

Figure 6: Number of Gang Members Reported by Indian Country Communities, 2000, by Community Size*

Figure 6: Bar graph showing the number of gang members reported by Indian country communities, 2000, by community size.

*Smaller communities have a population of less than 2000; larger communities 2000 or more. Source: 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country.

Gang Problem Onset

Of the Indian country respondents who experienced gang activity in 2000, half said gang problems began after 1994, suggesting the relatively recent onset of gang activity. Approximately half of respondents from the comparison sample indicated that the problems began after 1994. Figure 7 shows the percentage of respondents from each sample who first identified a gang problem in their community during a particular year. The figure suggests that gang activity began later in the Indian country and comparison samples than in the national sample and is not the longstanding problem that is more frequently reported by national survey respondents.

Figure 7: Year of Onset of Gang Problems, by Survey Sample

Figure 7: Line graph showing the year of onset of gang problems, by survey sample.

Source: 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country; 2000 National Survey of Youth Gangs.

The onset of gang activity is associated with a variety of factors. Findings from a field study on gangs in the Navajo Nation indicate that the importation and spread of youth gangs are facilitated by specific structural factors in the community (Armstrong et al., 2002). These factors include the frequency with which families move off and onto the reservation; poverty, substance abuse, and family dysfunction; the development of cluster housing instead of traditional single-family housing; and a waning connection to Native American culture and traditional kinship ties among cousins. These findings reflect a process of “multiple marginalization,” whereby depressed “social and economic conditions result in powerlessness” among community members (Vigil, 2002:7). These changes in structural forces weaken families, schools, and other institutions traditionally associated with social control, thus allowing youth to be socialized on the street by gangs. For example, respondents in the Navajo gang study cited friendship and the sense of belonging to something as significant benefits derived from being in a gang (Armstrong et al., 2002). Related research indicates that gang activity in Indian country communities is a relatively recent phenomenon and is associated with the social and structural conditions of larger communities (Conway, 1998; Hailer, 1998). NYGC survey findings corroborate many of these findings.

Gang Member Demographics

Communities that reported gang activity in 2000 were asked to estimate demographic characteristics of gang members, including age, gender, and race or ethnicity.7 Respondents said that 80 percent of gang members in Indian country were male and 20 percent were female. Not surprisingly, survey respondents also believed the majority (78 percent) to be American Indian, Alaska Native, or Aleut. In fact, approximately one-half of responding communities indicated almost all gang members (more than 90 percent) were of this race. Twelve percent of gang members were reported to be Hispanic/Latino, followed by Caucasian/white (7 percent), African American/black (2 percent), and Asian (2 percent). Respondents indicated that approximately one-quarter of gang members in their community were younger than 15 years old and that almost half were between 15 and 17 years old, suggesting that nearly 75 percent of all reported gang members in Indian country were juveniles (younger than 18 years old).

As seen in figures 8 and 9, the findings related to gender and age makeup for the Indian country sample are consistent with those for the comparison sample.8 Twenty percent of the gang members in the comparison sample were female, compared with 6 percent in the national sample (Egley, 2002). Respondents for the comparison sample reported a greater percentage of juvenile gang members (70 percent), compared with 37 percent reported nationally in 2000 (Egley, 2002).

Figure 8: Gender of Gang Members, 2000, by Sample

Figure 8: Bar graph showing the gender of gang members, 2000, by sample.

Source: 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country; 2000 National Youth Gang Survey.

Figure 9: Age of Gang Members, 2000, by Sample

Figure 9: Bar graph showing the age of gang members, 2000, by sample.

Source: 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country; 2000 National Youth Gang Survey.

These data suggest that youth gangs in Indian country and the comparison sample are similar in age and gender composition. Additionally, these findings are consistent with previous research that has found that areas experiencing a recent onset of gang activity frequently have larger proportions of juvenile and female gang members than areas with longstanding gang problems (Howell, Egley, and Gleason, 2002). Respondents also estimated that 82 percent of the identified gangs in Indian country included both male and female members, 10 percent were female dominated (more than 50 percent of the gang’s members were female), and 35 percent were racially or ethnically mixed. Gangs with such a demographic mixture are sometimes referred to as “hybrid” gangs and are increasingly visible across the country (Starbuck, Howell, and Lindquist, 2001).

Gangs in Schools

The survey asked respondents about gang activity in community schools. Eighty-six percent of the Indian country communities with gang problems indicated gang activity in one or more community high schools. Additionally, 74 percent said gangs were active in one or more community middle schools, and 42 percent indicated youth gang activity in one or more community elementary schools. Howell and Lynch (2000) report that youth gangs are linked with serious crime problems in schools across the country. Those schools in which gang activity was reported were also more likely to have higher levels of violent victimization, availability of drugs, and students who carry guns than schools reported not to have gang activity. Gang member interviews from the study of gangs in the Navajo Nation indicated that half of gang members were currently enrolled in school (Armstrong et al., 2002). Given the risk of criminal activity associated with gangs in schools, these findings highlight the importance of school-based gang prevention and intervention programs.

Gang Migration

The survey defined “gang migrants” as youth gang members who “already have joined gangs in their former jurisdiction prior to their arrival in a new jurisdiction.” Survey respondents were asked to estimate the percentage of gang members who were migrants. Approximately 17 percent of all gang members were identified as such, and the majority of respondents (77 percent) perceived migration to be tied to social circumstances such as gang members moving back into the community with their families. These results are consistent with reports by law enforcement agencies outside of Indian country (Egley, 2000; Maxson, 1998). Comparatively few respondents said gang members migrated to their community for criminally motivated reasons such as establishing drug markets, avoiding law enforcement, or establishing an alliance with Native American gangs.

Criminal Involvement

Survey respondents provided information about where Indian country gang members committed their crimes. The majority of respondents (56 percent) reported that youth gangs committed their crimes both within and outside the community, whereas 36 percent reported that crimes were committed only inside Indian country.

The survey asked respondents about the proportion of gang members involved in a variety of criminal offenses. According to respondents, gang members were most frequently involved in graffiti (47 percent of communities with a gang problem reported a high degree of involvement in this offense), vandalism (40 percent), drug sales (22 percent), and aggravated assault (15 percent) (figure 10). These findings support earlier research that suggests that gang involvement in criminal activity in Indian country consists mainly of property crime (Armstrong et al., 2002).

Figure 10: Criminal Activities of Gang Members in Indian Country, 2000 (n>65)

Figure 10: Bar graph showing criminal activities of gang members in Indian country, 2000.

*Data reflect crimes in which respondents said “most/all” gang members were involved. Source: 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country.

Indian country gang members who commit assaults tend not to use firearms in these crimes. Twice as many communities reported that gang members use weapons other than firearms in conjunction with assault crimes.

The majority of respondents from communities in all samples reported no gang-related homicides during 2000, and few Indian country and comparison sample respondents indicated more than one gang-related homicide (figure 11). By contrast, nearly one-quarter of respondents from the national sample reported more than one gang-related homicide.

Figure 11: Number of Gang-Related Homicides in 2000, by Sample

Figure 11: Bar graph showing the number of gang-related homicides in 2000, by sample.

Source: 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country; 2000 National Youth Gang Survey.

It is important to note that although the reported level of violent criminal behavior by gang members in Indian country is relatively low, the level of criminal activity increases with the size of the community. Figure 12 shows that in the larger communities, respondents reported more gang member involvement in both property and violent crimes. Additionally, 26 percent of larger communities reported one or more gang-related homicides in 2000, compared with only 6 percent of smaller communities.

Figure 12: Criminal Activities of Gang Members in Indian Country, 2000, by Community Size*

Figure 12: Bar graph showing criminal activities of gang members in Indian country, 2000, by community size.

*Smaller communities have a population of less than 2000; larger communities 2000 or more. **Data reflect crimes in which respondents said “most/all” gang members were involved. Source: 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country.

Interviews with youth in the Navajo study showed that most gang crime incidents in Indian country are nonviolent (Armstrong et al., 2002). Navajo youth who identified with gang culture focused primarily on values of antioppression, cohesion within the gang family, and participation in leisure activities—not criminal enterprises. Members of Navajo reservation gangs indicated that most criminal activity, whether drug sales or violence, was individually motivated rather than gang motivated (Armstrong et al., 2002). Alcohol use, graffiti, and vandalism were the primary crimes Navajo gang members engaged in as a gang, which is consistent with the current survey findings. In fact, 83 percent of respondents in the Indian country survey said that only very little or some of the youth crime in their communities involves gang members.

Influences on Community Gang Activity

Fifty-one percent of Indian country respondents reported that gang members returning to the community from prison in 2000 had a negative impact on local youth gang problems. Thirty-one percent reported very little impact, and 18 percent reported no impact. These findings are comparable to those outside Indian country, suggesting that a majority of communities, regardless of size or location, are negatively affected by gang members returning from prison (Egley and Arjunan, 2002).

To explore other possible sources of gang influence, the survey asked respondents how much their community’s gang problem was affected by gang activity in outside areas. Fifty-three percent of responding communities said gang activity in large cities influenced the nature of gang activity in their community. Other sources of influence included border towns (24 percent), outside schools (22 percent), and prisons and jails (15 percent).

NYGC further explored the association between gang activity in Indian country communities and the proximity of the communities to large cities.9 Of respondents reporting an urban influence, 70 percent were located within 120 miles of a large city with gang activity, suggesting that such Indian country communities are more susceptible to the effects of large-city gang activity. However, as with earlier research (Hailer, 1998), these data also indicate that distance and isolation from large cities do not insulate Indian country communities from the influence of large cities’ gang activity.

Factors contributing to the persistence of gang activity in Indian country communities most often included the spread of the gang culture from nearby cities and towns (37 percent of respondents). Other contributing factors reported by respondents include parental apathy, erosion of the family structure, lack of values and low self-esteem among youth, social problems other than poverty (mainly drug and alcohol abuse but also unemployment, child abuse, and domestic violence), and a lack of positive activities for youth.

Survey respondents also identified factors that prevent youth in their community from joining gangs. Respondents cited positive activities for youth, community and school programs that address violence and gang activity, and traditional Indian culture and beliefs. Youth gang activity in the Navajo Nation was found to be influenced by similar factors. Researchers found that some gang-involved Navajo youth returned from urban settings and influenced peers in the community. Often these youth resided in subsidized public housing communities where numerous other youth and their families shared the same family and community factors of multiple marginality (see discussion of these factors). In this way, some youth who have never lived off the reservation in communities with gangs are exposed indirectly to the gang culture. This pattern of youth becoming involved in gangs is consistent with research that suggests that the diffusion of popular media and culture contributes to the proliferation of gang activity (Klein, 1995). The relocation of gang members as they moved with their families out of the cities (Maxson, 1998), movies glorifying youth gangs (such as Colors), and the popularity of “gangsta” rap music appear to have worked together to introduce large-city gang culture to youth in the suburbs and areas far away from central cities.

Defining Youth Gangs

The characteristics that guide local definitions of “youth gang” often vary among law enforcement agencies (NYGC, 2000). To examine this issue in Indian country, respondents were asked to rank six characteristics according to their importance in defining a youth gang in their community. As shown in the table, the average rank for each characteristic is approximately 3 to 4, whereas a ranking of 1 or 2 would indicate greater importance.

Characteristics Used in Defining a Youth Gang

Average Rank (1=Highest, 6=Lowest)
Indian Country Sample Comparison Sample
Gang Characteristic
(n=56) (n=45)

Claims a turf or territory 3.9 4.3
Commits crime together 3.6 2.4
Has a leader or several leaders 3.5 3.4
Has a name 3.4 3.5
Displays or wears common colors or other
     insignia
3.3 4.0
Hangs out together 3.2 3.4

Source: 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country; 2000 National Youth Gang Survey.

No one characteristic emerges as dominant over the others—considerable variation exists among communities as to the most important criteria for defining a youth gang. However, the average rank of “commits crime together” is significantly lower among Indian country respondents than among comparison sample respondents. This suggests that group criminal activity is a less defining feature of youth gangs in Indian country. This result may be related to the developing nature of youth gangs and youthful experimentation with gang identity in Indian country.

Social Problems in the Community

Much of the literature about Indian country communities, along with input from advisory group members and practitioners in the field, suggests that social conditions in these areas are often associated with violence and victimization (Armstrong et al., 2002; Conway, 1998; Hailer, 1998). Thus, survey respondents were asked to rate the seriousness of various social problems in the community. Figure 13 reveals that 96 percent of respondents reported alcohol abuse as a significant problem, followed by drug abuse (88 percent) and domestic violence (80 percent). Of the eight social problems respondents were asked to rate, youth gangs ranked second to last as a serious problem (by 52 percent of communities) and violent juvenile crime ranked last (42 percent).

Figure 13: Perceived Seriousness of Social Problems in Indian Country Communities in 2000 (n=69)

Figure 13: Bar graph showing the perceived seriousness of social problems in Indian country communities in 2000.

*Data reflect percentage of respondents who rated a social problem “serious” or “very serious.” Source: 2000 Survey of Youth Gangs in Indian Country.

Although gang activity does not generally appear to be a serious problem relative to other social conditions in Indian country communities, 65 percent of larger communities said the gang problem was serious or very serious, compared with 35 percent of smaller communities. Other problems, including substance abuse and domestic violence, were recognized as significant problems across communities, regardless of size.

Perceptions of the Youth Gang Problem

Forty-nine percent of responding communities said that the magnitude of their youth gang problem was about the same in 2000 as it was in 1999. Thirty-four percent said it had worsened and 17 percent said it had improved.

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Youth Gangs in Indian Country OJJDP Bulletin March 2004