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Archive for Sunday, April 29, 2001

Reservation unrest

America’s Indian youths stuggle with violence, poverty and drug abuse

April 29, 2001

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— Yvonne Kee-Billison lay in a hospital bed, exhausted but elated after giving birth to her son. One floor down, doctors worked to save the life of her younger brother.

There had been a fight at a party, over a joint. A gang member stabbed 18-year-old Fernando Kee, a pitcher for the high school baseball team, seven times. As children, Fernando and his assailant had been friends. Now, the line between allies and adversaries blurred.

Yvonne Kee-Billison, holds photographs of her late brother,
Fernando Kee, outside her office on the Navajo reservation in Ft.
Defiance, Ariz. Fernando died of stab wounds in April 1996, the day
before Kee-Billison gave birth to her son.

Yvonne Kee-Billison, holds photographs of her late brother, Fernando Kee, outside her office on the Navajo reservation in Ft. Defiance, Ariz. Fernando died of stab wounds in April 1996, the day before Kee-Billison gave birth to her son.

At 10 p.m. on April 13, 1996, Yvonne's husband climbed the hospital stairs and delivered the news: "Your little brother passed away." As one young life began, another ended.

Kee was one of 67 people killed on the Navajo reservation that year, when a series of gang-related slayings made the remote Indian territory one of the deadliest spots in the country.

Over the next five years, while crime rates fell elsewhere in the United States, the nation's Indian reservations became even more dangerous, particularly for teen-agers.

Isolated, impoverished, dispirited disconnected both from their traditional culture and Western society American Indian youth have grown increasingly violent, drug-dependent and depressed.

Kee-Billison has seen it all firsthand. When her brother died, she was a Navajo youth counselor, assisting gang members affiliated with the one who killed Fernando. She quit after his death, but returned this year as director of the Fort Defiance Department of Youth and Community Services.

She now works to bring hope to Indian youth, in memory of a brother and for the future of a son.

"I really wanted to give up when my brother passed away. It just became a meaningless effort," she says. Today, she adds, "I don't want to take the kids for granted. I think there's a lot of hope."

A nationwide problem

School shootings, suicide pacts, teen pregnancies, drug overdoses. The signs of youth troubles are seemingly everywhere across America, with a list of familiar factors to blame from violent video games and television programs to broken homes.

Among the more than 550 federally recognized tribes, adolescents have even more to contend with.

Harmon Mason, 28, a former gang member who now works as a probation
officer on the Navajo reservation, warns of upcoming prison
releases of gang members saying "it could get worse" on the
reservation.

Harmon Mason, 28, a former gang member who now works as a probation officer on the Navajo reservation, warns of upcoming prison releases of gang members saying "it could get worse" on the reservation.

l Indians 12-20 years old are 58 percent more likely to become crime victims than whites and blacks.

l Indians under 15 are murdered at a rate twice that of white teen-agers.

l Indian youth commit suicide at more than twice the rate of non-Indian youth.

l Deaths related to alcohol are more than 10 times higher among Indian teens than those of other races.

l Arrests of Indians under 18 for alcohol-related crimes are twice the national average.

With jobs scarce on reservations, poverty and unemployment levels are the highest in the nation. Alcoholism is an epidemic, and domestic violence is soaring.

Add cultural confusion to the mix, and you've got a generation "stuck between two worlds," says Tom Goodluck, a counselor at the Four Corners Regional Adolescent Treatment Center in Shiprock, N.M.

Located on the northeastern edge of the Navajo reservation, the center treats about 80 Indian teen-agers annually for chemical dependency and mental health problems. Most of the patients don't speak Navajo and know little about their culture, Goodluck says.

A Native American youth looks out her cell window at the Tohaci
Youth Detention Center Feb. 9, 2001 in Tohachi, Ariz.

A Native American youth looks out her cell window at the Tohaci Youth Detention Center Feb. 9, 2001 in Tohachi, Ariz.

"I see a lot of young people come in with no spirituality, no belief in a creator," he says. "They don't even know how to pray. These children are hungry for something."

Indian youth offer other reasons for turning to crime, alcohol and drugs. Try isolation, and sheer boredom. With most reservations hundreds of miles from big cities, kids have little to do. There are no movie theaters or video arcades, few recreational escapes.

"The teen-agers are really bored with things," says Crystal, a Navajo high school senior.

Crystal, who asked that her last name not be published, went to family court four years ago after her father attacked her in a drunken rage and she fought back. After spending 12 days in juvenile detention and being threatened with more jail time, Crystal straightened up. Some of her friends weren't so lucky.

"Most of my friends, now they all have kids," says the teen, who hopes to study architecture in college. "They need to get activities here. They need to come out here and ask us."

Some steps have been taken to address the youth crisis. In 1997, the FBI created an Office of Indian Country Investigations and moved 30 agents to bureaus near the reservations most in need of additional resources.

But funding remains scarce, and resources are stretched thin. For example, there is on average just under one tribal police officer per 1,000 residents patrolling the Navajo reservation's 16.2 million acres, where 169,000 people live. That's compared with 2.3 officers per 1,000 in comparably sized non-Indian communities.

Confronting the problems

The years following the violent outbreak in the Navajo Nation can serve as a model for how far one Indian community has come in confronting its youth problems, and how much further it has to go.

FBI agent Mac Rominger arrived in Navajo country in 1997 as part of his agency's Indian initiative, charged with heading the probe of gang activity in Fort Defiance and the capital city of Window Rock.

That year tribal police reported at least 75 active gangs within the Navajo Nation, but Rominger found little had been done to combat the problem. Tribal police, understaffed and inundated with minor crimes, took reports of gang-related offenses but rarely followed up. What started as vandalism, public intoxication and truancy soon escalated into assaults and stabbings.

The gangs, Rominger says, "operated with impunity."

Over the next three years, federal authorities arrested and won convictions against two dozen gang members. "It was like the Grim Reaper showed up," says Rominger. "Nobody ever saw them again."

But not all the problems died with the arrests. While gang activity dissipated in Fort Defiance and Window Rock, it has spread elsewhere across the reservation to towns such as Chinle and Pinon.

In Pinon, a community of 2,050 people, there have been a half-dozen homicides in the past three years at least two gang-related, Rominger says.

With the help of some federal funding, the Navajo Nation built two new facilities in Chinle to address the youth problems. One, a 48-bed youth detention facility, was funded in 1989 but only completed last October. It remains unopened as tribal leaders squabble over who will operate it.

The other, a 20-bed substance abuse facility, also has stood empty since October because of red tape over staffing and other issues. The first tribal-owned and -operated treatment facility for youth, the center is now set to open next month.

Kee-Billison won a federal grant for a project that incorporates Navajo ceremonies such as talking circles and sweat lodges with traditional counseling to try to reduce crime and substance abuse among adolescents.

Elsewhere across the reservation, after-school programs have been implemented to tutor at-risk youth. In Chinle, teens conduct community service projects through a group called Horizons Unlimited.

Yet obstacles remain. Apathy is a major one.

A community crime coalition that Kee-Billison started after her brother's death has seen a huge drop in attendance.

"The courts, probation, youth services, the schools we're still the dumping ground for kids who are in trouble," she complains. "Does something bad have to happen again for us to come together?"

Those who have had run-ins with the law say it can be difficult to change.

"I couldn't find a job. Everybody just closed the door on me," says 28-year-old Harmon Mason, a former gang member who now works as a probation officer on the reservation. He landed the job after a youth counselor recommended him to work on a study of gang activity.

Says Mason: "It's been a real hard, difficult road."

The road may only get bumpier when the gang members who did go to prison get paroled.

"When these guys start getting released," Rominger warns, "it could get worse."

A new beginning

At least one gang member is eligible for release this summer the man who killed Fernando Kee.

For Yvonne Kee-Billison, the memories of her brother's death are as fresh as that night in 1996. Every day she sees the house in which he was stabbed; it sits across the street from her office at the youth center. In her wallet she still carries a photo of Fernando in his baseball uniform.

The despair and discouragement that consumed her after his death have faded, however.

With her own children's future at stake, Kee-Billison hopes to meet with her brother's killer before he goes free. As she does with so many other young people, she wants to help him choose a new path toward a bright future, one free of hate and violence.

"I hope he doesn't have that mentality that, 'I'm bad and I'm always going to be bad.' Maybe if I talk to him, it'll make a difference," she says. "I don't know if I forgive him, but I know he has a life to live. I hope he comes out and lives that life to the fullest."

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