Jeff Berys eased his police cruiser to a halt. In the midnight darkness, at the corner of East 30th Street and Portland Avenue, he aimed a spotlight on a stop sign, its post defaced by gang initials.
He recognized the scrawl as the insignia of one of the reservation’s 10 gangs.
Two years ago, a gang went after Anthony Slayton on this reservation street.
Slayton, 22, was driving a yellow Cadillac when he was fatally shot in the chest and forearm with a .45-caliber revolver. His infant child, strapped in a car seat, was unhurt.
Berys, a Puyallup tribal police sergeant, drove another block, rolling past businesses where gang graffiti has been blotted out, only to reappear.
“They’re out like flies” in the summer, Berys said of gang members on the reservation. He spends most of his night patrol watching for kids, some as young as 9, loitering on street corners.
The Puyallups, a proud tribe whose name was given to a valley, a river and a city, have fought bitterly to protect their traditions: Their right to feed their families from once salmon-laden rivers. Their right to house their families on tribal lands.
Now, they find themselves fighting for an even more precious resource: their children.
Gangs are cropping up on several Native American reservations in the state. The gangs are reaching into such tribes as the Spokane, Yakama, and Colville - not just those in Western Washington. Aligning themselves with a particular group, donning baggy clothing and baseball caps and delving into crime, boys and girls are lured into gang life by the same social problems found in neighborhoods elsewhere: peer pressure, poverty, despair and a sense of rejection.
The Puyallup reservation, located just east of Tacoma, is crossed by Interstate 5, which serves as a pipeline for drugs and gang members from other places. The reservation also is bordered by Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, which has its own gang presence.
So far, four people, including Slayton, have died in gang-related violence here. Six others have been maimed or permanently disfigured. More than a dozen others have been seriously injured by bullets.
Kyle Samuels is another casualty.
Two years ago, Samuels, 18, was sitting in his bedroom, next to his brother, playing video games. A car drove by the house, circled back and at least four shots were fired at Samuels’ window. One bullet ripped into his chest. Another hit his right leg. Samuels staggered halfway to the living room and collapsed. He whispered something his mother, Marilyn, couldn’t understand, and then he died.
Fighting gangs is an uphill battle for Puyallup Tribal Police Chief Rory LaDucer. An estimated 60 Native American youngsters - 10 percent of the reservation’s Indian student population - have joined or are associated with a gang. Another 140 non-Indian youngsters also living on the reservation belong to, or have loose connections with gangs. Combined, they account for 30 percent of all crime.
The reservation’s 10 known gangs, and the 10 other gangs that exist just outside the reservation, often are branches of notorious big-city gangs.
And these kids are armed. Police have collected an array of weapons from suspected members, including .357 Magnums, 9mm automatics, .45-caliber semiautomatics. Tribal officers now wear bulletproof vests.
“Just because we’re on a reservation doesn’t mean we’re immune to this activity at all,” said LaDucer, who recently hired an eighth officer as a gang specialist. “It is one of the most severe problems facing Indian tribes right now.”
Such behavior is spreading across Native American lands nationwide, said John Holland, an instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M. Two years ago, Holland started teaching a course at the Indian Police Academy to help police deal with the growth of gangs.
“There’s a lot of denial,” he said, “but probably most of the tribal nations are experiencing it, or are about ready to experience it.”
The problem is particularly evident in Washington, where involvement is strongest on reservations near Interstate 5, but is spreading eastward to rural reservations as well.
An incident on the Nisqually reservation forced police in February to change how they deal with suspected gang members. Shortly after a tribal policeman cited two young men for having alcohol and firearms in their car, suspected gang members in two other cars shot at the officer, then drove away. The officer was shaken but unhurt.
Now, tribal police drive to Lacey or Yelm to interview suspects, “so we don’t walk out the door and get shot,” Police Chief Michael Stepetin said.
At the Yakama Nation in Eastern Washington, tribal leaders were dismayed to find graffiti on sacred buildings. One small town on the reservation suffered its first driveby shooting last year, said Davis Washines, tribal police chief of the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation.
In the Bellingham area, a juvenile specialist was hired by the Lummi Tribe to work with gangs after two drive-by shootings. “We have to constantly tend to the problem,” said Bruce Haley, police chief of the Lummi Tribe.
At the Spokane reservation in Eastern Washington, the seeds of youth gangs appear to be germinating. Police say they are finding young people wearing red or blue bandanas, flashing hand signals and wearing baggy clothing.
An admitted gang member from Western Washington moved to Spokane recently, spreading word that he planned to start a gang faction, before police arrested him on charges of jumping bail in King and Pierce counties.
“It’s a problem,” said Police Capt. Robert Flett of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose understaffed department barely can keep one patrol officer on duty covering more than 155,000 acres of reservations in Eastern Washington. “It’s not that big of a problem, but it is going to grow.”
Before his recent release from the Puyallup Tribal Jail following a parole violation, Lah-huh-bate-soot Bennett, 22, reflected on the limited opportunities afforded young Native Americans.
“A lot of youth know their culture, and are proud of being Indian, but there are not many directions you can go,” the former gang leader said, stroking his goatee. He wears his long hair in a ponytail, and his forearms bear tattoos that say “Native Pride.”
In the old days, said Bennett, young people proved themselves as warriors by hunting, fishing or through other customs. Those days are gone.
His brother, Yell-xla-bate-soot, who has been involved with a gang for four years, said everyone around him was joining up.
Yell-xla-bate-soot, 17, who has a criminal record that includes strong-armed robbery and aggravated assault, also says he can’t imagine himself doing anything else.
“I’m not doing too good in school, so why waste time in school when I can go out and make money somewhere else?” asked Yell-xla-bate-soot, a ninth-grader, who is attending his third high school this year.
“My ancestors died for a reason, so we could live free. But from the looks of it, we’re not too free.” He says of his gang, “I ain’t never going to leave.”
The poverty rate on reservations is more than twice the national average. The death rate from alcohol-related causes is five times that of the rest of the country. Unemployment is the nation’s highest, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
All 10 hard-core gang members on the Colville reservation in Eastern Washington abuse drugs and alcohol and have been arrested more than once. Their home life often is miserable. “We can’t find parents to turn them over to,” Tribal Police Chief Jay Goss laments.
Tribal leaders are attempting to curb gangs and promote Native American culture, but living in mainstream society makes it harder to pass cultural traditions down to Native children.
For example, the school year conflicts with the Winter Ceremony, an ancient spiritual tradition practiced every day from November through April. But working parents and schoolchildren do not have time to participate.
“Young people today don’t feel included, so they resort to gangs where they are included,” said Vi Hilbert, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship winner.
Hilbert is one of fewer than 100 elders who speak Lushootseed, a common language among Puget Sound tribes.
Native children with the best chance of succeeding are those who are able to walk in two worlds: their own and mainstream society, taking the best from both cultures, said Roberta Basch, who grew up on the Puyallup reservation and is president of Washington State Indian Education.
Basch and Hilbert have collaborated on a project to bring Lushootseed into classrooms via the Internet. The language, they said, can teach pride, spirituality and validation of their culture. “Native language can teach what they lack,” Hilbert said.
Another group reaching out to hundreds of youngsters is Puyallups Against Violence, formed two years ago in response to gang violence on the reservation. A community-based program, Puyallups Against Violence aims to help youngsters through tutoring, career development, recreational dances and sports. The prevention and intervention program tries to convince young people - even gang members - that there are better options in life.
“It’s depressing,” said Berys, an eight-year police-force veteran who was reared by his grandparents on the reservation.
With the end of school near, Berys braces himself for what could become a long, hot and dangerous summer of kids and gangs.
“You just do your job and keep talking to them,” Berys said. “One of these times, they’re going to listen.”
The following fields overflowed: DATELINE = PUYALLUP TRIBAL RESERVATION, WASH.
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