Urban-style gangs leave their marks on Navajo reservation

The Associated Press

FORT DEFIANCE Beneath the red rock spires and ponderosa pines of the Navajo Nation, the scourge of urban America is leaving its mark in the spray-painted insignia of gangs.

Here on the nation's largest Indian reservation, young men in baggy pants and bandanas strike a discordant note amid the awe-inspiring canyons and cattle grazing under the open sky.

More than 200 miles from the nearest big city, gangs are being blamed for increasing beatings, stabbings, drug trafficking and killings.

''I beat up a couple of Dragons stabbed a few,'' says a 19-year-old Navajo who calls himself G Money.

The young man, dressed in black with a bandana on his head, speaks unabashedly of his activities in the Insane Young Cobra Nation during a break from a family volleyball game.

He's never killed anyone but claims to have come close once and he's willing to try again.

''I'll shoot any Dragon,'' he says, black eyes steeling in his roly-poly face.

The Dragons are a rival group in Fort Defiance, about seven miles north of the tribal capital of Window Rock in northeastern Arizona. Their spray-painted trademarks compete with those of the Cobras on concrete bridges, red cliff faces and the abandoned shell of a house within yards of G Money's ramshackle home.

Navajo police say gang activity among the reservation's 160,000 residents has escalated far beyond vandalism since the problem surfaced five years ago with a rash of beatings in middle school bathrooms.

''It wasn't really fights, it was just initiation rites in the bathrooms,'' Capt. Francis Bradley recalled.

Next came colors, increasing graffiti, and beatings on the streets.

Police suspect six murders in the Window Rock area last year were gang-related, and they've seen the beginnings of turf wars, drug trafficking and retaliatory killings.

A 14-year-old boy committed suicide last year apparently because he was being pressured to join a gang, said Bill Smith, principal of Window Rock High School in Fort Defiance.

The violence contradicts the traditions of the Navajo, who long ago were warriors before turning to the peaceful pursuits of sheepherding and weaving learned from their Pueblo neighbors.

The gang culture now threatens to overshadow the family loyalty prized by traditional Navajo, said Smith.

''More and more families are being affected by the fighting,'' Smith said. ''It's really amazing when you talk to a kid and they say, 'Yeah, it's my cousin and I beat up on him and I feel bad about it,' but they do.''

Youths on the reservation, like those elsewhere, often join gangs out of a need for group identity, officials said. Navajo officials view the trend as tragedy in a tribe with a proud cultural identity of its own.

''They're searching for where they belong,'' said President Albert Hale Jr. ''They don't realize they also belong to the Navajo Nation.''

The pressure to straddle two worlds the Navajo and the American pop culture imported through TV and tourism leaves teenagers vulnerable.

''The kids just don't have anything to believe in, and I sense that's the heart of it,'' Smith said. ''The traditional belief system gives them something to work with, and I think they need that.''

G Money, who understands the Navajo language used in his home but cannot speak it, said his tribe and gang affiliations are completely separate. He said being a gangster is about getting the respect missing in his life.

Officials say youths from the Window Rock area population 3,300 are spreading their inner-city mentality to smaller, rural communities scattered across the reservation's 24,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Tribal police have just two officers assigned full-time to gang cases, both of them in Window Rock.

Officials at the 800-student high school have banned the green-and-black hooded sweatshirts and bandanas favored by the Cobras. They've confiscated weapons including motorcycle chains, spiked collars, retractable razor blades, knives sheathed in notebook paper and guns.

The problems may dwindle during class hours, but it is growing outside school walls.

''It's when you come out here to the streets, that's when you've got to watch your back,'' said G Money. ''It's getting worse out here.''

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