"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Wild Boyz Indians

Life on the Pine Ridge Agency is hard. Located in southwest South Dakota in the badlands, this 3,500 sq. mi. tract of rugged prairie is larger than the state of Rhode Island. Home to over 50,000 members of the Oglala Lakota nation, it also contains some of the worst poverty in the entire nation.

Here are the facts:
  • Pine Ridge is located in the poorest county in America
  • Nearly half the population lives below the poverty line
  • Unemployment is close to 80%
  • Up to 10% of the Pine Ridge population are gang members
I learned these harrowing statistics watching one of the most compelling documentary television shows on the air today Gangland.  Each episode of the History Channel series profiles one of the most notorious gangs in America running from the Aryan Brotherhood, to the Latin Kings, to the Hells Angels, to this week's installment, the Wild Boyz of Pine Ridge.

Much of the gang activity on the Pine Ridge Reservation is imported from cities where tribal members get hooked up with urban gangs.  They often move back to the Reservation and bring their gangbanging ways with them.

The exception to the rule is the homegrown gang known as the Wild Boyz.  Its members were born and raised on the Pine Ridge Agency.  They are a native twist on the traditional gang model.

Having seen many episodes of this series, I noticed early on the same trends running through all the different gangs.  They all have their own territory, sport their own gang signs, symbols, and colors, and express an unbelievable sense of anger and frustration.  And they are all after one fundamental thing- RESPECT.  The Wild Boyz are no different.  They subvert native symbols to create gang tattoos- foremost among them being the bear claw.  For them, being a gang member is the modern equivalent of being a Lakota warrior.

Their violence and unique take on tribal history infuriates many in the community.  The Wild Boyz are appropriating their own culture and twisting it into a violent shadow of itself.  For so many disaffected youth on the rez, the Wild Boyz become their new family, their new Lakota brothers- a place for them that is still uniquely native but also provides an escape from all the pain of growing up on Pine Ridge.

(Source: flickr)

This episode profiling the Wild Boyz presents one of the most harrowing tales of modern native life- the crushing poverty that forces so many young men into a life of crime.

In a way, this episode of Gangland proves one thing- the Lakota youth of Pine Ridge are like so many other young men and women in the country.  They are scared, disaffected, and desperately searching for something to give their life meaning.  Sadly, instead of finding meaning in their families or traditions, they create an artificial family, one that breeds hate and violence through a culture of fear.

The Wild Boyz episode of Gangland is about as far as one can get from the classic Indian stereotypes of film and television.  The gang members are decked out in sports jerseys, hoodies, and baggy jeans.  Their speech is filled with the colorful words and phrases usually associated with black urban culture.

The Gangland series is also an extremely voyeuristic show.  It allows anyone to sit comfortably in their homes and watch a real life drama unfold before their very eyes.  It opens up windows into other cultures that are about as far as one can get from the white, middle-class, suburban lives many of us live.

While this episode may not fit the usual trend of Indian obsession or appropriation, it still proves that our majority American culture can't get enough of delving deep into the lives of the Other.


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    1. Education is the key, not necessarily school education, which would help greatly. Education to show what this does to your chances of having a decent life for your children. Drug money is easy but long term it destroys families and continues a vicious cycle. Hard work and the realization it won't be easy but then again life isn't easy.

  4. I hope and pray they can change for the better some day.