Guardian Angels starting first reservation chapter at Fort Peck

By Matt Volz
Helena, Montana (AP) March 2010

Fed up with growing gang violence, Montana tribal leaders this weekend will start the first-ever American Indian reservation chapter of the Guardian Angels.

The new chapter of the citizens’ crime-watch group – whose members are known by their red berets in New York, Chicago and other U.S. cities – will begin training about 50 recruits on the rural Fort Peck Reservation. The sprawling reservation on the plains of eastern Montana is home to 6,000 of the approximately 10,000 enrolled members of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.

Chauncey Whitwright III, vice chairman of the Wolf Point Community Organization, said the children of the 3,200-square-mile reservation are vulnerable to gangs that have crept in from the outside.

Other Montana tribes, including the Blackfeet, Rocky Boy, Crow and Northern Cheyenne, report the same problem, Whitwright said, and he hopes the new Guardian Angels chapter will eventually expand its programs and patrols and give teens there an alternative.

“There are all kinds of gangs roaming around up here,” Whitwright said Thursday. “Our kids are in danger, they’re being influenced, they’re being targeted. It’s going on every day of the week ... and they’re busy recruiting.”

The Guardian Angels, started in New York City more than 30 years ago, has chapters in 14 countries and 140 cities.

Curtis Sliwa, the outspoken founder of the Guardian Angels, called it a breakthrough that the traditionally insular Native American leaders invited the Guardian Angels to the reservation. The new chapter will be a model for other tribes and reservations in the West and among Canada’s First Nations, he said.

“We’re dealing with a problem that everybody recognizes, but most folks haven’t wanted to try anything different,” Sliwa said. “In this case, the Indians said, ‘We’re going to do it for ourselves.”’

Sliwa plans to be at the Fort Peck reservation for the opening, when the new chapter plans to select their leaders and start putting the recruits through background checks and training. Whitwright expects patrols will start in about six months.

A Justice Department study from last year concluded that most gangs on reservations have little or no direct ties to national-level street gangs. Some urban and suburban gangs are expanding drug operations onto Native American reservations, but most are local gangs typically composed of Native American youth, according to the study.

But Whitwright and Sliwa say the increased gang violence on reservations is coming from outside the tribes.

The gangs come in because they can exploit the reservations that have multiple and often confusing law enforcement jurisdictions, Whitwright said. And once police crack down, the gangs often melt away and shift to another reservation, he said.

There have been 43 arsons on the reservation since 2009. A few were ruled accidents, but tribal leaders suspect most are gang-related, evidenced by the graffiti that appears on the burned rubble the next day, Whitwright and Sliwa said.

There also has been an increase in the number of elderly beatings, which Sliwa says is a gang initiation right particular to Indian reservations – asking young tribal members to pick gang loyalty over the tradition of respecting their elders.

State Department of Justice spokesman Kevin O’Brien said the state does not track reservation crime statistics and only gets involved in criminal investigations at the request of local law enforcement. Roosevelt County Sheriff Freedom Crawford was not in his office Thursday afternoon and could not be immediately reached for comment.

Whitwright decided to invite the Guardian Angels to the reservation last Thanksgiving, after teens vandalized his niece’s home and car. He said he walked up and down the reservation with a visiting Guardian Angels member from Minneapolis, who pointed out the gang colors teens were wearing and the gang tags written in graffiti.

“I guess we were all in denial,” Whitwright said. “It’s not just an Indian problem, it’s all our problem, and we’ve got to deal with it before it gets out of control.”