A cross to bear
James Cross knows why Native American kids join gangs
About this project
This is the first story in a five-part series on Native American gangs.
By Tristan Ahtone for Al Jazeera America
Photos by Tomo for Al Jazeera America
James Cross, right, stands with his twin brother, Gerald, in the latter's Minneapolis backyard.
Published on Monday, January 19, 2015
MINNEAPOLIS — It was Sunday, game day, and James Cross turned down the television volume, rose from his armchair and lifted his purple Vikings windbreaker to show off his tattoos.
“This is a drive-by scene,” he said as he pointed to the image on his stomach. “I never finished it, though. I was going to put ‘Do another drive-by to make another mother cry.’”
He turned around and pulled the purple windbreaker up to show off his shoulders.
“I got forks on the back, which represents the Disciples,” said Cross, referring to a tattoo of two hands making the sign of the Latin Gangster Disciples. “Then I’ve got tattoos on my face. I had a teardrop, but we covered it up with a feather just so everybody wouldn’t be intimidated and I could get a job. Everybody knows a teardrop is for murder.”
When they were around the age of 7, he and his twin brother first hooked up with the Latin Gangster Disciples. One day, he said, they were hanging around with the older guys and someone said, “Hey, go get that cash register,’’ referring to a nearby convenience store.
“We went and got that cash register,’’ Cross said. “There was an old man working there, couldn’t do nothing, couldn’t hardly move, so it was an easy hit.’’
Not that easy. They got caught and he began a long string of encounters with the law. Now 48, he has spent almost half his life in prison. That time has taken a very serious toll on his life.
“My kids, they’ve been on drive-by shootings with me when they were babies and little kids,” said Cross. “I wish I’d never showed them that — how to live, how to be a gang member.”
His youngest son, Jerome Cross, decided not to become a Latin Gangster Disciple like his father. Instead, he joined up with the Shotgun Crips and is now serving a 33-year sentence for murder.
“He went from innocent to fucking gangster,” said James Cross. “He’s probably the smartest one of all of us, but he just wanted to be like Dad. He won’t be out till 2029 or 2030.”
Compared with their African-American or white counterparts, Native American gangs and gang members are a relatively new phenomenon, tracing their roots back to the 1980s and ’90s, when city gangs introduced themselves to Indian Country and began recruiting.
The young men and women joining these gangs come from myriad backgrounds, some involved with Native American cultural and spiritual practices, others from broken homes and some even from supportive, two-parent, middle-class homes.
The growing threat of Native gangs is not a retelling of cowboys and Indians set against the backdrop of a modern black market. It’s a story about how historical trauma, federal policy and tribal pride have created a new Indian problem: organized crime.
The question remains: Why do the youths of Indian Country join gangs?
James Cross and his twin brother, Gerald Cross, sat outside smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. A pair of pit bulls wrestled for a stick at their feet, and old minivans and sedans rolled through the streets, the boom and beat of hip-hop music occasionally rattling trash cans and the plastic side paneling of houses.
“When he goes to jail, I can feel it,” said James as he pointed to his brother. “We never fought one on one. We made sure that people knew if you messed with one Cross, the other one was coming. That’s how we grew up. To this day, it’s still like that.”
Both of them were taken from their Anishinaabe and Dakota parents at the age of 4 because of alcoholism and were adopted by a white family. Gerald says the home was safe, clean and a loving environment, but James says he knew he didn’t belong. The two joined the Latin Gangster Disciples primarily because it was something to do and seemed cool.
“Just being able to count on people, not feeling like you were rolling alone — just seemed like it was a good thing,” said Gerald. “We were part of something. We were clicking. We had things.”
If it weren’t for the tattoos, it would be hard to tell the two apart. James has the gang signs for the Latin Gangster Disciples on his back, while Gerald has them on his chest. Whereas James has a drive-by scene on his stomach, Gerald’s is tattoo-free; instead, he has a city scene down his arm with “Most hated 612” — 612 being the Minneapolis area code.
While James has elected to take the straight life, Gerald still dabbles in drugs and occasionally runs the streets. “You know right from wrong,” said Gerald. “But you’re going to do what you’re going to have to do. If you can accept the consequence of getting caught, then do what you’ve got to do.”
The growling pit bulls grew tired of the stick, and one waddled into the shade to yawn, snort and nap while the other sat between the Cross brothers, hung its tongue out and drooled into the grass.
Minnesota has nine criteria, and individuals have to meet three of them to be considered a gang member. They include being arrested with a gang member, wearing clothing identified with a gang, appearing in a photo with a gang member engaging in gang activity, being identified as a gang member by a reliable source and being regularly observed with gang members.
“There is a problem around the definition of a gang,” said Katie Johnston-Goodstar, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work. “It starts to become a spectrum of ideas rather than a single entity.”
According to her, there are good gangs, and there are bad gangs. Good gangs could be viewed as a natural, almost necessary reaction to hostile environments, providing structures for young people to have appropriate identity development — and in Indian Country, where history has had serious effects on people’s sense of identity, to cultivate a healthy conception of being Native.
“We need to talk about all the disruption of community that happened through continual polices and practices over the last 200 years,” said Johnston-Goodstar. “We’re still feeling those effects and impacts and that trauma and ongoing trauma.”
For instance, in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Santee Sioux men in the largest mass execution in American history, 80 miles south of Minneapolis in the town of Mankato. The hanging came in the aftermath of the Minnesota Uprising, in which Dakota tribal members attempted to drive white settlers from their territory after being robbed, cheated and starved by local, state and federal officials. Those who weren’t hanged were removed to Nebraska, and over the next 100 years, the area’s remaining tribes and bands underwent brutal changes — moving to reservations, sending culture and tradition underground and migrating from their homelands to cities like Minneapolis.
Between 1992 and 2002, Native Americans came into contact with violent crime at double the rate of the rest of the nation;around 60 percent of victims described their attackers as white. And between 2005 and 2009, over half of all violent crimes that took place in Indian Country were declined by authorities for prosecution.
“A lot of times, we just want to say, ‘Oh, this kid is bad,’” said Johnston-Goodstar. “But if we look at the community history, if we look at their personal history, if we look at chemical dependency in the home, it’s all these other environmental impacts that are really giving them little to no choice.”
According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Native American children in Minnesota are six times as likely to make contact with child protective services than white children, eight times as likely to experience neglect and 12 times as likely to spend time in out-of-home care.
“From the inside, it’s about protection, it’s about positive identity development around a cultural-historical presence and possibly some criminal activity on a misdemeanor kind of level,” said Ross Roholt, a member of the gang assessment team at the University of Minnesota. “The bigger piece is that these groups come together to protect themselves and to create a space to see themselves as Native.”
In 1993 two Minneapolis police officers found two Native American men who were passed out drunk, handcuffed them, threw them in the trunk of their car and drove around town before delivering them to a hospital. According to Human Rights Watch, the officers claimed that they were worried about the men and wanted to get them to a hospital quickly. One of the officers had been repeatedly accused of arresting and driving people to the Mississippi River to beat and interrogate them. In the 1960s, the American Indian Movement was founded in Minneapolis to protect Native people from police brutality.
“I don’t think that the gangs are all that different than the American Indian Movement in a lot of ways,” said Eric Buffalohead, chairman of the American Indian studies department at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. “It’s about protecting yourself in a culture of violence.”
Today new, international pressures affect many cities with Native communities. Somali refugees have begun making the South Side of Minneapolis home and now live in the same neighborhoods as Natives, sometimes displacing families.
“It’s created some interesting territorial skirmishes and problems with the Somali gangs versus the Native gangs,” said Buffalohead. “It’s created this really interesting, supermulticultural situation but also troubling because everyone wants their piece of the pie, and when you’re at the bottom of the barrel, fighting for scraps, things can be tough.”
According to data from 2007, fewer than half of Native Americans over age 25 had earned a college or graduate degree. A 2014 report asserted that Native American teens experience the highest suicide rate in the country.
“It’s easy to sensationalize gang violence. It’s easy to sensationalize crime,” said Oliviah Walker, a member of the gang assessment team. “It’s easy to put ‘Native Mob’ in a handful of newspapers and just have it blow up because it takes the focus away from systemic and structural violence that occurs in our communities.”
James Cross ended his career on the streets in prison and in tears.
“I wanted to be the toughest, scariest known dude,” he said. “But last time I got locked up, all my sons and my wife came to see me, and it just broke me down.”
They had a message for him: Come home, stop with the drugs, stop the gang activities, and stop the violence. Most important, they told him they loved him.
“Man, that was the hardest thing,” he said. “When it comes to people telling you they love you and you know deep down they love you for real? I couldn’t stop crying. And crying in jail? Was that hard to cover up.”
Today Cross works as a dishwasher at a Native community center in Minneapolis. His wife has health problems, and he cares for his granddaughter and his sons. Because of his tattoos, most jobs turn him away. Because of his arrest history, others won’t hire him.
On the weekends, he helps run sweat lodges for anyone who wants to participate, including current and former gang members. He also runs a motivational speaking program, Real Talk Native, in which he talks to high school students about the dangers of joining gangs.
“I tell kids, ‘If you’re really into changing and getting out of the gang, it’s possible,’” said Cross. “I try to get these kids to find a better life.”
Seated in an armchair in his purple Vikings windbreaker with tattoos on his face, neck and arms, he settled in to watch the game. The front door to his home was open, a breeze blew through the screen, and outside the sun was shining.
“It’s hard to be good, you know?” said Cross. “When you’re so used to just dealing with everything with violence? That’s why everybody can’t even believe I’m doing this.”