Mille Lacs Ojibwe fighting violent offenders with banishment

Native Mob gang terrorizing Minnesota reservation

Mille Lacs Ojibwe fighting violent offenders with banishment
Mike Kooiman

Storm clouds rolled in over the Mille Lacs Indian reservation just as Julian Koslowski and two other members of the search party reached the wastewater treatment plant.

Around the corner from the facility, Koslowski noticed two paths where a patch of tall grass had been flattened. One was thin, just the size a person would make by trudging through the unkempt lot. But the other was much wider, "like something had been dragged there." He also noticed tire tracks in the dirt, fading as the rain poured down from the black sky.

"It smells like something's dead back there," Koslowski called out to the others.

Right: Cody St. John still picks gravel out of the scars inflicted on a subzero night in 2006
courtesy of Jeff Anderson & Associates
Right: Cody St. John still picks gravel out of the scars inflicted on a subzero night in 2006
A civilian search party found William Nickaboine's remains hidden behind the wastewater plant last summer
Mille Lacs Band
A civilian search party found William Nickaboine's remains hidden behind the wastewater plant last summer

It took a few minutes to find the source of the pungent, rotten odor. At first, they walked right past it, not even realizing what it was. The body of 19-year-old William Nickaboine was so badly beaten, maimed, and burned, it was barely recognizable as a human corpse.

For Koslowski, nothing would ever be the same after finding these mangled remains of his childhood friend.

"I still smell it sometimes," he says.

Word of Koslowski's discovery quickly spread across the 60,000-acre Ojibwe reservation carved out along Lake Mille Lacs. The community counts about 4,000 close neighbors and large extended families, and almost everyone knew Nickaboine. More than a year after the grisly discovery of the body, the topic still quiets members of the Ojibwe band.

Nickaboine was just the latest casualty on a reservation that has become overrun with shootings, muggings, and drugs, much of which the Ojibwe attribute to a new gang called the Native Mob.

"You can't trust anybody anymore," says Mille Lacs Ojibwe member Irene Benjamin. "It's families against families, friends against friends.... It's just crazy."

To fight back against the warring gangs and violent offenders, the tribe has revived an ancient form of punishment: banishment. Legally called "exclusion," it forbids the offender from entering the reservation's trust land for at least five years.

When it was used centuries ago, banishment was a thinly veiled death sentence. Without the rest of the tribe's support, an exiled member rarely survived for long in the wilderness.

But modern banishment means something entirely different.

"Where are they banishing them to?" asks Clyde Bellecourt, an Ojibwe civil rights leader. "They just come down to Minneapolis."


IN THE WORLD OF organized street crime, Native American gangs are still relative newcomers. While nationally recognized gangs like the Bloods and Crips started in the late 1960s and early '70s, most Indian gangs didn't show up until well into the '80s and '90s.

In the Midwest, several Native American gangs formed in south Minneapolis. They went by names like the Naturals, the Native Gangster Disciples, and the Native Vice Lords. They originated as the first line of defense against outside street gangs, says Christopher Grant, a Native American gang specialist.

"They don't want to be connected to a Mexican gang or a black gang or a white gang," says Grant. "They want to have their own identity."

The Native Mob didn't establish itself until the mid-'90s, but in short order rose to infamy as one of the most dangerous Indian gangs in the country, according to the Department of Justice. Born out of the Little Earth community in Minneapolis, the Mob made its bones by running drugs and guns from the Twin Cities to Ojibwe reservations across the state, eventually branching out to Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

Though the Mob is small in numbers compared to other Native American gangs, none can match its reputation for ruthlessness and packing heavy artillery, says Jon Lurie, who has worked with Native Mob members at the American Indian Center.

"They seem to be more active in terms of being involved in violent crime," says Lurie. "The kids that I've known who are part of Native Mob were young and stupid and carried big guns—like the guns you would expect to see on the streets of Afghanistan."

It wasn't until 2005 that the Indian gang wars reached the Mille Lacs reservation. At first, the quiet community felt so distant from the gang culture in the Twin Cities that police and tribe members wrote the new gangsters off as "wannabes."

That changed after a subzero night in 2006. Cody St. John was walking home after a long evening of drinking when a man named Keith Reynolds jumped him. Reynolds was mad that St. John refused to join him in the Vice Lords.

Reynolds and another Vice Lords member knocked St. John unconscious. They tied him to the back of a car, dragged him down the street, and left him for dead, stripped of clothing in the -13 degree night.

When St. John didn't come home, his cousin Rubin went looking for him. Rubin found St. John outside the reservation's community center. He'd been beaten so badly, Rubin only recognized him by his tattoos.

Rubin rushed his cousin to the hospital, but St. John had suffered permanent brain damage. His skin was burned from the vehicle's muffler and the letters "VL" had been sliced into his body with a blade.

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