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The huge influence of gangs

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Gang sign
Gang signs in Waubun
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Lenny Fisherman was 22 when he was interviewed for this story in 2005. Fisherman is a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, but he grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation. Fisherman says his mom dropped him off there when he was 2  years old. His father was an alcoholic and wasn't around. He was raised by his grandparents.

GANG LIFESTYLE WAS COOL

Lenny Fisherman
Lenny Fisherman
Photo courtesy of Beltrami County

Fisherman started getting into trouble at 12.  He says that's when he began stealing, smoking and drinking, doing drugs and fighting. He got kicked out of three schools before finally dropping out in the 10th grade. He was locked up in juvenile centers for most of his teen years.

"The longest I stayed on the street was only a few months," said Fisherman. "I've missed seven Christmases, you know. That's been seven years of Christmas. That's long."

Fisherman joined a gang when he was 14. He says he was attracted to the gang lifestyle because that's all he saw when he was growing up. He thought it was cool. 

"When I was a little kid I used to look up to those situations, those same people walking around selling drugs and things like that, drinking," said Fisherman. "That's all you had to do on the reservation, that's all you had to do -- seemed like to me -- was drink, you know, do drugs, sell drugs or fight.  That's all I was seeing when I was growing up on the reservation at that time, so that's what I grew up on." 

Native Vice Lords
The Native Vice Lords' insignia.
Image courtesy of the Minnesota Gang Strike Force

Police say there have been cases of gangs using kids as young as 8 or 9 years old to carry and sell drugs for them, because young kids can avoid criminal penalties. The kids are usually encouraged to use drugs, too.  Minnesota gang experts say much of the drug traffic on reservations is fed by gangs in the Twin Cities. 

Lenny Fisherman says he thinks lots of young kids look up to gang members on the reservation.

"I wanted little kids looking up to me as a gang member, as the big guy, you know, who won't mess with me," he said. "That's what I wanted to do. I had a reputation where I didn't care. I wanted people to be scared of me and stuff, you know. That's what I did. I robbed people. I robbed drug dealers. I gang-banged against others. I wasn't scared."

The idea behind Fisherman's gang was to establish a territory to sell drugs and make money. Fisherman figured he'd drive a fancy car and have women on both arms. But he says it didn't work that way. He says the gang got money from stealing guns, or bootlegging things like stolen CDs and clothing. But they'd often spend it on drugs or alcohol.

AN ARMY OF WANNABES

Gang experts say most gangs on reservations appear to be poorly organized. Mahnomen County gang and drug officer Jason Wambach says so far it seems like internal fighting is what's keeping the gang problem from exploding on the reservations. He shudders to think what might happen if strong gang leadership developed.  

Native Mob gang
Insignia for the Native Mob gang.
Image courtesy of the Minnesota Gang Strike Force

"We have a whole army of wannabes, kids who are just looking for someone to follow," said Wambach.

On the Leech Lake Reservation, Officer Mark Rogers investigates drug and gang activity as part of the federally funded Weed and Seed program. Rogers says gang disorganization doesn't necessarily mean good news for communities.

"I think here in Cass Lake, and on the Leech Lake Reservation, generally, the gangs are not as developed or entrenched as say they are in the Twin Cities," said Rogers. "But not being entrenched, sometimes they're a little more dangerous -- if they're trying to start up and make a name for themselves, carve out territory, gain respect, which kind of results in some of the gang related violence around here."

There have been several deaths local authorities have directly linked to gangs. In November 2005, Michael Littlewolf, 20, was beaten to death on a Cass Lake street corner. His family says it was because Littlewolf wanted to leave a gang called the Third Avenue Killers. Several members of that gang have been charged in connection with the murder.

As much as you love smoking weed, as much as you love drinking, as much as you love fighting like I do, as much as you love messing with all these girls ... it's not worth it, because.. there ain't no love back. It ain't love if you're going to jail.

Rogers says gangs often fight each other for superiority. But Rogers says much of the violence on the Leech Lake Reservation can't be blamed on gangs alone.

"You find the real violence in Cass Lake -- the real serious violence, the deaths -- are often, it seems, just senseless, a part of no organized pattern," said Rogers. "It's just somebody who lost it at that particular time, whether they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or very emotional. I don't see gangs in Cass Lake as being in some sort of organized program to eliminate the competition or anything like that."

Some tribal leaders fear gangs are getting better at organization. Leech Lake Chairman George Goggleye says he thinks that's already happening. He worries about the implications.

"They've openly stated that they want control of the tribal governments, they want control of the casinos," Goggleye said. "They want to have control of everything, so they can control what happens within the confines of the reservation."

Former gang member Lenny Fisherman said what his gang did most of the time was fight. Either they were fighting each other for power within the organization, or they fought other gangs for superiority. It's called gang-banging.

"You're walking around, gang-banging, it's an everyday thing," said Fisherman. "You couldn't tell who's going to get shot, who's going to get stabbed, who's going to get beat up. You couldn't tell that. Almost every day we were fighting each other."

Fisherman says he got tired of spending so much time locked up in juvenile centers or prisons. And something else happened to him. 

TRYING TO WALK THE RED ROAD

When he was 15 years old and sitting in a juvenile center, a traditional man from Red Lake took him to a sweat lodge. That's when he got interested in his Native culture.

Club gang insignia
Club gang insignia
Image courtesy of the Minnesota Gang Strike Force

"And that's when I felt very comfortable with my own tradition," said Fisherman. "I felt that was me, I was home. Ever since then I start doing my culture then. That was me. I'm an Indian, you know?"

Fisherman says that experience touched him somehow. But it wasn't enough to keep him out of trouble. When he was 17 he went to prison for robbery and assault. He got out three years later, but within two months of his freedom he stabbed several people and went back to prison.

At the time of this interview last year, Fisherman was enjoying freedom and doing well.  A traditional spiritual leader gave him his Indian name, which Fisherman says means Little King or Little Boss.

"Having that name means to me I am a leader," he said. "I believe I can be a leader for my people. That's the way I take it."

Fisherman said he was ready to straighten out his life. 

"As much as you love smoking weed, as much as you love drinking, as much as you love fighting like I do, as much as you love messing with all these girls and stuff and just hanging out with your friends, it's not worth it, because.. there ain't no love back," Fisherman said. "It ain't love if you're going to jail. It ain't love if you're going to prison. There ain't no love."

Fisherman was enrolled in school, studying business and marketing. He had a car and a place to live in Bemidji, and had re-established a relationship with his long estranged father. 

"Now it's time to just walk the Red Road, go down that path," Fisherman said. "It's going to be a struggle, but I'm going to do it, you know. I just gotta do it."

Recent efforts to reach Fisherman were unsuccessful. State corrections officials say there is a warrant for his arrest. If they find him, Fisherman could be heading back to prison.