Mille Lacs Ojibwe fighting violent offenders with banishment
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.
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.
"They carved it on my face, my forearm, and my back," says St. John, who still picks gravel out of the scars five years later. "You can still see them today."
When Nickaboine's corpse was found, he marked the fourth teenager to turn up in the reservation's morgue in four months. Mille Lacs County has since charged two 20-year-old Ojibwe members with the murder, and the court proceedings are ongoing. Many speculate it was a gang-related murder, another tragedy in a community that has become all too accustomed to violence.
"If you had four drive-by shootings in Minneapolis in a two-month span, there'd be a huge outcry," says Mille Lacs County Sheriff Brent Lindgren. "We have four drive-by shootings in the Vineland district in a two-month period and it doesn't even make the local media."
FOR BRETT LARSON, the gang problem officially arrived in 2006. That's when tribal police stopped trying to convince his staff at the Mille Lacs Messenger that it wasn't happening.
The small community newspaper was struggling to keep up with all the violent crime. The Messenger ran so many crime stories, Larson began to receive letters from readers complaining about how the coverage was squeezing out all the positive stories and creating a negative portrayal of life on the reservation.
"We are overwhelmed," says Larson. "We don't have the people or the resources or the time to cover some of this as well as we would like to."
No one could deny the gang problem anymore, but the community was woefully unprepared to deal with it. Federal law prohibited the tribal court from sentencing any offender to more than a fine and a year in jail. Mille Lacs County has jurisdiction over the reservation, but it's only a small part of its coverage area, and the surge in crime had spread resources too thin.
To give the county some relief, the sheriff's office hired a gang task force agent with a Department of Justice grant. The gang specialist's job was to identify and document the gang members in Mille Lacs County in order to establish the scope of the problem.
By 2008, the specialist had documented 486 gang members, most of them living on the reservation. In comparison, the neighboring Aitkin and Morrison counties had 37 and 59 documented gang members, respectively.
"That's a pretty significant population," says Lindgren. "And they're connected. They're connected to Cass Lake. They're connected to Little Earth."
The tribal government started holding town meetings, searching for ideas of how to handle the problem. That's when Rjay Brunkow, then the tribe's solicitor general, came to police with the idea to banish the worst offenders.
Brunkow and police defined the criteria for banishment: A repeat offender would be exiled for five years. If the convict maintained a clean record and gainful employment, the tribe would consider lifting the banishment. In the meantime, the banished member would still collect casino money every month as part of the tribe's revenue-sharing program with its members.
Though it seemed like a logical solution for the tribe, not everyone in the community was thrilled about the radical idea.
"Where are they gonna go?" says Lindgren. "They're still the same people. It's like sending our bad people to Wisconsin."
MARIA KEGG WAS beginning to worry.
Night was falling on the Indian reservation, and her 12-year-old son, Evan, had yet to return home. Kegg lived on a rough block, and it wasn't safe to walk around after the sun went down.
Kegg climbed into her minivan and drove in search of Evan. She made it just five houses down the street when she recognized a group of three men.
"Where is Evan?" she asked.
"Leave him be," one replied ominously. "He's all right."
Suddenly, Kegg was staring down the barrel of a loaded handgun, about to be the victim of a carjacking.
Without thinking, she jumped out the driver's-side door of the van and grabbed one of the men from behind. She recognized her human shield as a friend of Evan's. She eased him backward until she found a clean break to make a run for a neighbor's house.
She dashed into the house and collapsed on the floor, screaming to call 911. Police arrived moments later and the street became the scene of an armed standoff, with at least one shot fired.
"I was like, 'God, that gun is loaded, and they just had it right by my head,'" says Kegg. "I still think about it sometimes."
Ten days later, Kegg was called to testify at an emergency hearing in the Mille Lacs tribal court against the three assailants. As she sat on the witness stand, she trembled as she recounted the horrific tale of the night she was almost killed.
Next a tribal elder named Carol Sam took the witness stand. The same week Kegg was held at gunpoint, Sam had an almost identical experience. The same three men jumped in front of her car, one slamming his hands on her hood and forcing her to stop. The strangers surrounded the car, and one put a gun to her head. "I'm going to fucking kill you!" he screamed.
Sam overheard one of the men say they had stopped the wrong car, but that didn't faze the one with the gun. Sam was able to escape only because one of the gunman's accomplices physically restrained him. "Go, go, go!" her savior ordered, and Sam sped off, ducking down in her seat for fear they would begin shooting.
Though Sam escaped unharmed, she told the court that she now had to take medication to fall asleep at night. She also heard rumors that her house was going to be "shot up."
"Where am I supposed to live, and who else should I fear?" she asked the courtroom.
The three carjackers—Benjamin Garbow, Patrick Provo Jr., and Zachary Nayquonabe—were among the first to qualify under the tribe's criteria for banishment.
"They were looking for the people who committed crime after crime after crime," explains Tribal Police Chief Dwight Reed.
The posse members' criminal histories spoke for themselves. Nayquonabe, only 20 at the time, had been busted for DWI, theft, and assault with a deadly weapon.
Provo had been convicted of two assaults. Earlier that month, he had been arrested by tribal police and blamed his sister, Heather, for letting him sit in jail. When he got out, he waited for her in their parents' driveway.
"You left me hanging!" he screamed, according to police.
Heather reminded her brother that she was pregnant.
"I don't care!" replied Patrick.
Just before the confrontation got physical, their dad came out of the house and kicked Patrick off his property. Given Patrick's history of violence, his sister called police, and Patrick was charged with a felony for domestic assault. At the time of his arrest, his blood-alcohol level was .245.
Garbow, the third carjacker, had been released from prison a few months earlier after serving three years for beating someone half to death with a tire iron.
In August 2008, a tribal judge excluded the three men from the reservation along with one other tribe member, marking the Ojibwe's first modern banishments. The judge ordered another banishment that October. The tribe is now in the process of banishing Darrick Williams, a 20-year-old tribe member who police say punched an Ojibwe woman so hard, he knocked one of her teeth clean out of her gums. After Williams's case is resolved, tribal police have a long list of new names to submit to the court for exile.
ON MAY 9, 2009, police got a report that a tribe member named Blaine Beaulieu had just beaten up a 17-year-old kid.
Beaulieu's was a familiar name to tribal police. He had been convicted of more than a dozen crimes, including two DWIs and eight assaults of varying degrees.
The cops received a tip that Beaulieu was holed up in a hotel room in Grand Casino, and broke in the door to arrest him.
"Wait until I see you without that badge," he threatened one officer as they escorted him to jail in handcuffs.
In the case of Beaulieu, the tribe couldn't banish him—he had already been banished seven months earlier. This was Beaulieu's third arrest on the reservation since he'd been exiled, which highlights a flaw of banishment.
"It's impossible to just sit around and patrol for people who have been excluded," says Matthew Fletcher, a tribal law professor from Michigan State University who studies banishment.
The difficulty of enforcement is just one reason that banishment is controversial among tribal law experts. As the ancient practice has been revived by tribes in Minnesota and across the country in the past decade, many have also questioned whether it's the equivalent of cruel and unusual punishment.
The definition of a banishment or exclusion changes from tribe to tribe, but along with losing one's place on the reservation, it is the only legal penalty in the world that has the potential to rob a tribe member of his or her identity, says Greg Guedel, attorney for Washington-based law firm Foster Pepper.
"If you're Irish and you commit murder and you're sentenced to either life in prison or the death penalty, you're still Irish," Guedel says. "With banishment, what the tribe is saying is you are no longer Cherokee, you are no longer Navajo. You are a person without a country."
The punishment also can become a potent political strategy in a tribe's power struggle, says Katherine Florey, tribal law professor at University of California-Davis.
"I wouldn't wanna go around saying that banishment is always a wonderful thing," says Florey. "It's subject to abuse."
One example happened in 2008, when nine members of the Snoqualmie tribe in Washington state were banished for running an alleged "shadow government." The exiled members appealed the ruling, arguing they were actually cast out as a power play from opposing party members. In one of the only banishment cases ever to see a federal courtroom, a judge sided with the banished members and overturned the tribe's ruling.
In Mille Lacs, the biggest problem with banishment so far has been people like Beaulieu who come back after being cast out. Of the five people banished since 2008, all but one has since been arrested back on the reservation.
"Has it stopped crime completely? No," says Reed. "Has it reduced it? Maybe. But they still come back and commit crimes."
MARLENE POUKKA'S house is still scarred by the bullet lodged just centimeters over the second-story window of her son's bedroom.
Poukka was asleep when it happened last winter. She awoke to the unmistakable sound of gunfire in her front yard. Before she could even get up to investigate, her son barged into her room.
"Mom!" he screamed. "Somebody just shot at the house!"
She found out the next morning that someone living at her next-door neighbor's house owed money to a drug dealer. When the money didn't come on time, the dealer wanted to send a message. Poukka's house had just been collateral damage.
"We have a pretty good idea who it is," she says, divulging only that the shooters were gang members. "I really don't want to say anything."
Today, two pit bulls stand sentry in her yard for security. Though she's lived there for eight years, she feels uncomfortable walking beyond her own driveway.
"I don't feel safe at all," she says.
Poukka's block doesn't have streetlights, and she's witnessed the gangs that roam her neighborhood under the cover of darkness.
"I've seen groups of teenagers walking down the road with clubs," she says. "I mean, what are they doing outside at that time in the morning?"
More than her own safety, she worries about her seven-year-old grandson, Jamie, whom she's helping to raise. Poukka's endured the fear for only a few years, but Jamie has never known any other life.
"He's just a little one," Poukka says. "When kids grow up with violence and they see it, they tend to do the same thing."
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