In the past few years, a growing concern about crime, delinquency, and gang activity in Indian country has emerged. Previous research shows that much of the gang activity seems to be an expression of youthful experimentation with gang identity and that a strained social environment, the appeal of popular culture surrounding gang activity, and a lack of positive activities for youth contribute to the American Indian youth gang phenomenon (Armstrong et al., 2002).

Few research studies have focused specifically on the level of youth gang activity in these communities. This study has provided a detailed national assessment of gang activity in Indian country communities that can guide effective response to the problem. Findings in this Bulletin reveal that 23 percent of responding Indian country communities experienced a youth gang problem in 2000. The size of the youth gang problem varied considerably, with many communities reporting comparatively few youth gangs and gang members. In general, gang members most often were said to be juvenile, male, and involved in property crimes such as vandalism and graffiti. Survey findings indicate that larger communities have a greater number of gangs and gang members, experience more violent crime by gang members (including homicides), and report gang activity as a more serious social problem.

The data presented here help clarify whether, and in what ways, gangs in Indian country are similar or different from other youth gangs. Although the findings for Indian country communities and national sample respondents differed, it is possible to compare Indian country data with data from the comparison sample, whose respondents more closely resemble Indian country communities in size and geographic location. These comparisons suggest similar levels of gang activity and similar gender and age composition of gang members. Additionally, findings from a field study of youth gangs in the Navajo Nation substantiate many of the survey results presented.

This preliminary assessment of the gang problem in Indian country can be used to guide systematic response to gang activity in these communities. However, community-specific strategies should be based on detailed assessments of local gang problems and involve community agencies in a continuum of programs and strategies that focuses on prevention, intervention, and suppression.

A number of programs have effectively reduced delinquency, and some look promising for reducing gang involvement in the general population. Many of these programs could be culturally tailored for an Indian country population and possibly prove equally effective for its youth. School- and community-based programs to prevent, control, and reduce youth crime and violence in general, such as BGCA and G.R.E.A.T., appear promising, as do programs that address substance abuse. Intervention programs, such as the BGCA Targeted Outreach program, may effectively reduce gang involvement in these areas. For communities experiencing a more severe gang problem, suppression tactics that reduce gang-related criminal activity might be necessary. Additionally, as the gang problem in Indian country appears to be an extension of more serious problems, including poverty, substance abuse, and unemployment, policies aimed at improving overall conditions in a community will most likely have a concurrent and positive impact on the community’s gang problem.

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Youth Gangs in Indian Country OJJDP Bulletin March 2004