Melvin Martin: Gangs a big problem in Indian Country
The setting for this short tale of extreme woe: my Uncle Vernon's house at the "Indian Ghetto" (a district of subsidized housing units) in North Rapid City, South Dakota, mid-February 2007. The players: columnist Melvin Martin and his dinner guest, the irrepressible Shy Guy, my then 21-year old nephew, an avowed, hardcore, Indian gang member from the Denver, Colorado area:

At well over six feet tall, and very stocky, Shy Guy is indeed an impressive figure. From a distance, he resembles the symbol of Death, minus the scythe, with his black, 4X hooded sweatshirt and black denim pants. Shy Guy is stranded in Rapid City while he waits at my uncle's house for his ride back to Denver.

After wolfing down four big bowls of buffalo stew, five extra-large pieces of fry bread and almost a quart of Hawaiian Punch, Shy Guy belches loudly. Then, he just sits saying nothing. I break the silence by asking him a question that has long beguiled me as an observer of America's gang scene.

Me: "So, Shy Guy, what does it mean exactly when someone walking down the street is asked where they're from?"

Shy Guy: "Man, you talks like you sum kinda perfesser. It's-it's-it's like this Joe (my family nickname). If a doo be walkin' down the street, he be axed where he from 'cause if he ain't from dis hood den sometimes he dead, you know."

Me: "So, if I was walking through your hood in Denver and I was asked where I was from and if I did not give the correct answer, then I would be killed?"

Shy Guy: "If my homies dint know you den you would prolly get f**ked up, you know. Man, in some hoods in Denver, man, they be sprayin' people! You know. Wid AKs an s**t!"

Me: "So, Shy, how do you handle yourself in situations like what I just described?"

Shy Guy: "Man, you should be writin' a motherf**kin' book or sum s**t 'cause you talk like you could be makin' some money, you know what I be sayin'? Dis is what I'd like ta use da nex time I be gangbangin', you know."

Shy Guy, who was once a college-bound, straight-A student before his parents' marriage folded in 2003, leaves the kitchen table to return with a six-foot long, hand-made, Plains Indian spear adorned with leather strands and what appear to be owl feathers. The seven-inch spear point is more than razor-sharp as Shy demonstrates by slicing a thin Christmas card neatly in two.

"Man, I be tradish wid dis! But once I throws it, dis is what I be usin'." Shy Guy then produces a stainless steel .45 automatic from the folds of his massive sweatshirt, releases the clip, taps the fully loaded clip on the table, then jams the clip back into the gun. He looks at me, his eyes concealed behind a pair of purple-black sunglasses, and smiles.

I have not seen Shy Guy since that cold, gray February day in North Rapid. I heard from a reliable source that he ventured up to Canada where he has a girlfriend and a little boy. Perhaps fatherhood changed the course of his life; at any rate I'd like to think so. And since then I have certainly prayed so.

Gangbanging in Indian Country has suddenly been placed front and center with last week's New York Times article, "Gang Violence Grows on an Indian Reservation" and the recent shooting incident at this year's Lakota Nation Invitational (LNI) in Rapid City, South Dakota (if this isn't gang-related I don't know what is). With close to a million gang members currently active throughout the United States, to include the legions of eager wannabes, how to best combat the menace of gangsterism has long perplexed even the so-called experts. However, when the Indian gang problem is more closely examined, this one major obstacle exists that cries out loudly to be addressed:

There are enormous issues involved with varying degrees of denial and outright minimization as to the nature and full extent of the Indian gang problem. Gang activity in Indian Country is a fairly recent social phenomenon that greatly puzzles tribal communities everywhere. Tribal leadership in many cases just seems terribly oblivious to what is actually occurring so much so that, as in other areas of significance relative to "life on the rez," that it's often easier to simply deny that the problems exist in the first place.

And it isn't just the reservation communities either that are caught up in the quicksand (as I like to say) of denial, look at Rapid City in this latest (shooting) incident. I believe quite strongly that in order to preserve whatever is there in terms of "cordial relations" between the LNI organization and the city authorities, to publicly deny that the shooting was gang-related is just "good business" since the tournament brings in a lot of money to an area that is essentially and critically dependent on the tourist trade.

Gangs in this country are as American as apple pie as gangs have been operative here since the founding of the nation. Gangs are an intrinsic part of life in these United States. And gangs in Indian Country are growing in terms of the seriousness of all of the associated problems that are engendered.

For the young people who are drawn to gang life, highly feasible and cost-effective alternatives and outlets must be carefully planned and implemented for them. It has been recently noted that there is an increasing lack of interest among Indian youth, who are gang-susceptible, towards the acceptance of traditional ways as a means of resisting gang recruitment. If such is truly the case, then newer approaches and methods of outreach to at-risk youth should be formulated and put into full use immediately. The magnitude of this problem demands a sea change throughout all of Indian Country - are we as community members sufficiently motivated to initiate these changes?

Melvin Martin is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. He can be contacted at

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