Michael Littlewolf, 20, grew up in Cass Lake. But he spent much of his teen years locked up in juvenile detention centers for assaults, stealing cars and other crimes.
Littlewolf had been a member of a violent gang called the Third Avenue Killers. Family members say about a year ago, Michael decided to quit and straighten out his life.
KILLED BECAUSE HE QUIT
In November 2005, Michael Littlewolf was found beaten and unconscious on a Cass Lake street corner. He died the next day. Family members say Michael was killed because he quit the gang. Four alleged gang members were arrested for the murder. They range in age from 17 to 35.
Michael's mother, Berta Meeshenow, says gang-related tattoos on his arms and chest had been burned and cut with a knife. The first thing she thought of was the Third Avenue Killers.
"I knew right away. I knew it when I seen those tattoos," said Meeshenow. "Because the word was already out that they were going to get (my family). So we knew. We already knew."
Meeshenow says she believes the Third Avenue Killers have been terrorizing her family. Last summer, someone fired shots into her home while some of her kids were there. No one was hurt, but it frightened the family.
Meeshenow says her son Michael wanted to get out of Cass Lake. He wanted to spend more time with his 4-year-old daughter, who lives in Minneapolis. Michael had recently taken a test to join the Marines.
"He passed it, and he was really happy about that. He said 'Mom, I passed that test and I'm going,'" Meeshenow recalled. "And I said, 'Well, you go for it ... go do something with your life. There's nothing around here, Michael.' Look at people getting shot. We got our windows broken out. They shot up our house. I said, 'Just go, Michael. We'll be all right, you know.'"
Meeshenow says her son Joe was also in a gang. She now worries about her youngest son, Dominique, 13, who looks up to his brothers.
"I talk to my boys," Meeshenow said. "That's a bunch of childish stuff, you know, gangs. My other son, Joe, he got piled a few times. His gang-bangers didn't come help him. They didn't even do nothing. You don't call that a gang, you know. If they're in a gang they should be backing each other up. I said, 'Well, call your friends and ask them to come back and go get them guys, then.' Never even happened. So see, they ain't your friends."
"YOU GOTTA DO WHAT YOU GOTTA DO"
Chris Wouri was best friends with Michael Littlewolf since kindergarten. Wouri, 18, says they were more like brothers. He was into drugs and spent time in juvenile lockup for assaults.
Wouri says he never joined the Third Avenue Killers, but sometimes hung out with them. He says growing up on the reservation was tough, and often violent.
"With all the drama that goes on around here, and people talking and people starting stuff, I mean, you gotta do what you gotta do to survive around here," said Wouri. "You gotta stand your ground, basically."
Wouri says lots of people want to get away from the troubles on the reservation. He says he was hopeful his friend, Michael, who spent so much time locked up, was finally headed down the right path.
"Anybody that ever knew Michael, they could see all the changes in him and that he was making progress," said Wouri. "I was really happy that he was going that way with his life, you know, because there's nothing around here. And he was trying to make something of it. And I seen that he was."
Chris Wouri says he, too, wants to leave the reservation. He's got a job at a tribal casino. But he's thinking of joining the military. Wouri says he first needs to get his GED. He's been distracted by a court battle to get custody of his infant son.
Emotional pain is worse than any physical pain. I seen what (the gang) did to my friend. They can't hurt me any more than that.Chris Wouri
"There ain't nothing around. There ain't nothing to do. I mean, basically, the only jobs around here is the casino," said Wouri. "What I'm looking at is just getting a better life, you know."
"Right now all I'm trying to do is just stay out of trouble so I can just get my kid," said Wouri. "That's my main priority right now, is to take care of him and show him a different way than what I took and other people took. Because it ain't no way to live."
Wouri has other problems, too. He says there are rumors around town that the Third Avenue Killers are after him.
"I know they're after me. And they can be after me. And I hope they listen and they can come find me. They know where I'm at," said Wouri. "I'm just saying that what they done -- emotional pain is worse than any physical pain. So I seen what they done to my friend. They can't hurt me any more than that. .. Does it scare me? Maybe to a point, yeah. I ain't gonna lie. I mean, who wants to die, you know."
THEY DON'T KNOW HOW TO BE MEN
It's difficult to pinpoint the causes of the problems in Native communities. Some say it's because of the influence of gangs. Others say it's drugs and alcohol. Some tribal elders trace the roots of these problem back a century, to the old Indian boarding schools which were set up by the federal government.
Indian children were sent to live in those schools at the age of 5 or 6, taken away from their families -- sometimes for many years -- and forbidden from speaking their language or practicing their culture.
Anne Dunn, who lost a grandson to murder, says the end result is generations of broken families, where parents were not there to be role models for their children.
With few role models to encourage them, American Indian students are three times as likely as other kids to drop out of school.
Anne Dunn says most kids on the reservation grow up without a dad in the house. She says the role of men 100 years ago was clear. They were the providers, the protectors. Dunn says today, young men don't know their role.
"They don't have the foggiest idea of what manhood is," said Dunn. "They think it's getting drunk, beating somebody up, having sex with as many women as possible. If you need money, steal it, or be a drug dealer. These are the easy ways. The hard way is to get an education and get a job. But they don't know how to be men."