By Jana Peterson
FOND DU LAC — After learning that law enforcement officials had discovered the body of a missing Floodwood woman on the Fond du Lac Reservation and – on top of that – that they suspected she was killed by a member of the Native Mob gang, Bettina Johnsen decided enough was enough.
She decided it was time to fight back, in ways both modern and old-fashioned. She started a Facebook page “Take Back Our Rez” the same day – Thursday, Oct. 4 – and organized a march against violence for Monday.
An image and words of Sitting Bull sit front and center on the Facebook page: “Let Us Put Our Minds Together And See What Life We Can Make For Our Children ~ Sitting Bull.”
Johnsen is a mom first, and she’s mad about what she said is happening to the place where she grew up and where her children go to school.
“I’m a mom of three little ones and I’m terrified to bring them up [here] because of the gang violence and drug use,” Johnsen said, adding that the problem isn’t just on the reservation but also in Cloquet and the surrounding area. “We want to come together and make it public that we’re not going to put up with it anymore.”
Fond du Lac Chairwoman Karen Diver expressed her support for the grassroots movement on the reservation.
“I am proud of the community that they are expressing the need to find community based solutions and deterrents to these behaviors,” Diver said.
More than 50 people participated in Monday’s march along Big Lake Road from Fond du Lac Gas and Grocery to the Tribal Center, a march she admitted was organized on the fly. Johnsen is hoping even more folks will attend a 6 p.m. meeting Thursday at the Tribal Center to discuss gang activities and other issues such as drug use.
“The more input, the better,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “We want to brainstorm ideas, talk about what people should do when they see things.”
According to Duluth Police Sgt. Rodney Wilson (who also serves on the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force), the best thing people can do is call their local police force, even if it’s something they think might not be important enough.
“Even if something doesn’t seem like a big deal, report it,” he said when asked if police would want to know about gang signs painted in a central Cloquet alleyway. “Even the smallest tip from a citizen may be something that corroborates an investigation. You know what’s normal in your neighborhood. Even if police drive through, you know who belongs in which house. We rely on the public to help us out.”
According to the United States Attorney’s Office for Minnesota, the Native Mob originated in Minneapolis in the early 1990s. Members routinely engage in drug trafficking, assault, robbery and murder. Membership is estimated at 200, with new members, including juveniles, regularly recruited from communities with large, young, male Native American populations. Association with the gang is often signified by wearing red and black clothing or sporting gang-related tattoos.
Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande said the Native Mob has worked hard to establish a presence in the state and in northern Minnesota, “specifically in those communities that have reservations,” he said.
He added that officials have seen Native Mob and other gang “tagging” marks – graffiti gang symbols – spray-painted on city bridges and in parks as well as on private property in the heart of the city.
“Every gang has its monikor that they spray-paint and identify with,” Lamirande said. “Some of them may be legit, some may be wannabes.”
Diver said reservation officials have “taken strides to try to keep gang activity down” but noted that officials did see a recent increase in gang activity after federal indictments caused the arrest of a number of high ranking gang members on other reservations earlier this year.
Wilson said – unlike some occasional big city gang members who occasionally travel north to sell drugs – the Native Mob is well organized. They hold monthly meetings around the state, and enforce a hierarchy of authority within the gang. Although the indictments of 24 different alleged Native Mob leaders in January definitely disrupted many of the gang’s activities, Wilson said it wasn’t a killing blow.
“They basically took out the leadership of the Native Mob,” he said. “Like any organization, it might take a while to rebuild and reload, but you’ll see younger people stepping into those roles. They’re always recruiting young people to be part of the gang.”
That’s exactly what Johnsen wants to stop. She wants more people to take responsibility for reporting things they see that are illegal and might be related to gang activities. She is also hoping to organize more marches, including one in Cloquet off the reservation, and more meetings.
“Over the last 10 years, drugs have really increased,” she said. “It’s scary. You never know if the person next door is involved. In order for us to get this to stop, people have to come forward so it doesn’t increase any more.
“If you see something, you have to step forward. It starts there. It has to start somewhere.”
By Jana Peterson