Lac du Flambeau


Taking the Wind Out of Their Sails:
 Combating Gang Activity and Youth Violence in Lac du Flambeau

by Amy Brennan and Julia North


A visit to the north woods of Wisconsin takes you to one of the most popular recreation areas in the state. Known for fishing, boating, and camping in the summer, skiing and snowmobiling in the winter, and hunting in the fall, the north woods is also home of the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa Indians. The presence of this Native American community in Wisconsin is evident as far south as Madison, where billboards along highway 94 invite travelers to the Lake of the Torches (English for Lac du Flambeau) Resort and Casino.

The fifth largest township in Vilas County, Lac du Flambeau experienced an almost 12 percent increase in population from 1990 to 1998—higher than Wisconsin’s 6.8 percent and Vilas County’s 9.8 percent growth. Lac du Flambeau residents attribute this growth to the casino, which was completed in 1993, and to a new grade school also completed in 1993.

A stop at the new George W. Brown Jr. Ojibwe Museum and Cultural Center is a must for learning more about this Indian tribe, which has been permanently settled on this land since 1745. A band of the Lake Superior Chippewa, the Lac du Flambeau, with its 1523 members, live on the reservation, which was established with a September 30, 1854, treaty.

An Active Community

“The casino has changed things quite a bit.

Before there was high unemployment. It’s been great.”

Butch St. Germaine, Vice Chairman of the Lac du Flambeau Tribal Council


It is clear from talking with community members that the Lake of the Torches Resort and Casino has changed life in Lac du Flambeau. Unemployment on the reservation dropped from at least 75 percent in the early 1980s to about 20 percent in 1999—thanks in large part to the casino and resort. Bingo, the tribe’s first gaming activity, was also the only tribal moneymaking enterprise in the early 1980s. Today, the casino is the number one employer in Vilas County. Revenues from the casino benefit not only each tribal member through a per capita payment each year (for members under the age of 18, the per capita payment is held in reserve until the age of 18), but they also fund the tribal council’s general fund, police department, planning department, and other enterprises.

The Abinoojiiyag (the Ojibwe word for youth) Center provides many opportunities for Lac du Flambeau youth. Activities at the youth center include career fairs at nearby Nicolet College, open gym for basketball, and karaoke. In addition to hosting events and programs, the youth center produces a newsletter that showcases successful community youth through interviews with high school seniors about their plan for the future and advice for younger students.

           After starting with two staff in the late 1980s, the tribal police department now has ten staff members. One police officer is a liaison to the Lac du Flambeau public school.  The growth in the police department allows for more targeted crime prevention and intervention. Although county police do occasionally patrol the reservation, having a police department of its own allows the tribe to handle crime on a more systematic and thorough basis. It also allows the tribe to hold its members accountable for their actions in a way that did not happen previously.

           With all of these positive signs—plenty of youth activities, devoted tribal members, and a dedication to celebrating the accomplishments of community members—the future looks hopeful to many people on the reservation. Despite all of the progress, however, uncertainty defines the future for some tribal members. Substance abuse and domestic violence are prevalent, and youth violence and gang activity exist.

Youth Violence and Gang Activity

“Fighting is fun, exciting. I get a rush.”

Lac du Flambeau High School Junior


Just how organized is gang activity in Lac du Flambeau?  Some people say it’s not organized at all, others say it’s very organized, yet still others in the community are not concerned with how it's labeled—they are just concerned about the results.

The Sovereign Natural Warriors

According to local police officials, gangs do exist in Lac du Flambeau—the most visible and active of which is the Sovereign Natural Warriors (SNW). SNW can be traced to Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Lac du Flambeau Police Chief Gene Roehl believes that SNW began as a drumming group in a Twin Cities prison. According to Roehl, the group was created to “help the prisoners spiritually—to help them get their lives together.”

           When SNW made their way to Lac du Flambeau, many community members denied their existence or chalked up their activities to “just a group of kids.”  Soon it became apparent that the group and their behavior was more organized and more serious than just kids being kids. According to the Vilas County Sheriff’s Department, SNW is involved in “crimes like [stealing] guns, drugs, and burglaries.” Tribal law enforcement officials confirmed these crimes and reported that SNW finances many of its activities through drug sales.

Initiation into SNW includes receiving a slash mark across the chest—from one side to the other. More slash marks are added, as a kind of status symbol, when a member recruits others to the gang. As with corporate gangs in other cities, getting out of this gang is difficult. According to an area probation officer, there are only two ways for the youth to escape the gang—a severe beating or death.

Authorities identified the leaders of SNW with the help of a member’s notebook. In the summer of 1996, tribal police confiscated a simple spiral-bound notebook from the car of one SNW member. The notebook recovery was significant because it provided useful and practical information—the names and ranks of the 15-20 individuals (both boys and girls) who were official members of SNW. This notebook also provided insight into the gang’s level of organization.

           One page of the notebook contained a two-paragraph pledge for the SNW. This pledge illustrates a commitment to Native American culture along with a Gangster Disciple-like slogan pledging “love, life and loyalty.”

The notebook also offered a glimpse into the structure of the gang. For example, meetings took place at a gang member’s house every Saturday at 7:00 P.M. According to the notebook, each SNW member paid $25 per month in dues. One page listed the members who were “blessed” (meaning in good standing) and those who were on probation. Another section in the notebook listed sixteen “laws” of the gang, including items relating to “Drugs, Stealing, Gambling, Culture, Exploitation, and Hygiene.”

           With cooperation between the newly formed Tribal Police Department, the Vilas County Sheriff’s Department, the Tribal Courts, and the Tribal Council, authorities defused the situation—and weakened the gang—by arresting the leaders on a variety of charges including burglary, assault, and drug possession. Most of the arrests led to prison sentences, which has kept the gang leaders out of the community.  “We took the wind out of their sails,” according to Joe Fath, Chief Deputy of the Vilas County Sheriff’s Department.

More Gang Activity in Lac du Flambeau

Authorities in Lac du Flambeau are aware of gang activity because of graffiti, hand signs, tattoos, and clothing. These days, however, members of gangs are more secretive about their status due to the recently enacted gang enhancer sentencing policies, which can add extra months or years to jail sentences if a crime is known to be gang-related, similar to the enhanced sentences with drug and gun-free school zones.

Well-known corporate gangs such as the Crips and Vice Lords have failed to make serious inroads in Lac du Flambeau. The parole officers on the reservation and in the county agree that individuals with various gang affiliations have moved to the area but have failed to attract large numbers of Lac du Flambeau youth. One police official surmised that large, corporate gangs are not successful at recruiting area youth because the newcomers are not part of the reservation establishment.

The Vilas County Sheriff’s Department keeps track of individual gang members in the area including the Gangster Disciples, the Latin Kings, and three adult motorcycle gangs—the Outlaws, the High Riders, and the Lost Race.

           Two years ago, a member of the Gangster Disciples from Chicago moved to Lac du Flambeau. He had a Gangster Disciples tattoo on his left hand. According to the Lakeland Times newspaper, two Lac du Flambeau youth “sliced a tattoo off [his] hand that identified him with a different gang.” According to the police and the probation agents, there is not much evidence of gangs except when other known gang members move to the community.

Most of the gang activity in Lac du Flambeau occurs away from the public eye in gang members’ homes. Police and school officials believe that other locations for gang activity include a remote island on the reservation (because the police do not have easy access to it), the snowmobile trails that run throughout the reservation, and areas outside of the reservation like the nearby town of Minocqua where Lakeland Union High School (LUHS)—the school attended by Lac du Flambeau youth—is located.

High school counselors and students have identified smaller, less organized gangs such as the Anishinabe[1] Knights and the Original (or Ojibwe) Gangsters, a group composed mostly of girls. While these groups of kids are not considered organized gangs by school staff and students, they do have a threatening presence in the school. One high school junior called most of the groups “stupid little gangs.”  Whether or not the gangs are stupid, they have influence—some students spend each day at school in fear of assault.

Recent Youth Violence

Lac du Flambeau youth say that gangs are not as prevalent as in the past—that things are not as bad as during the “bad summer,” as some residents call the summer of 1996. One young woman whose friends are now in prison believes that the gang activity has died down. “They don’t do it any more. They don’t do it any more. They realized how stupid it was, and they don’t do it.”

           According to the Vilas County Sheriff’s Department and the Tribal Police, juvenile crime has decreased since the 1996 summer. Yet crime statistics do not support this anecdotal report. In the past year juvenile crime has dramatically increased. According to the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance, Lac du Flambeau’s overall juvenile crime arrests increased by 230 percent in the last year, from 79 juvenile arrests in 1998 to 261 in 1999.         

           A brutal beating last summer is one of two highly publicized examples of juvenile crime that have recently rocked the community. On June 30, 1999, at 31-year-old Lac du Flambeau man was beaten, left naked and comatose on a trail on the reservation. While not necessarily part of a gang, five people—two adults (ages 30 and 18) and three juveniles (two age 15 and one age 16)—beat and kicked the man after robbing him. All of the perpetrators were Lac du Flambeau residents and one of the 15-year-olds was female. The 15- and 16-year old males were eventually waived into adult court and all received sentences in state prison for their role in the beating.

           In March 1999, a 17-year-old Lac du Flambeau youth was one of two people who beat a third using their fists, an expandable baton, and a golf club. Although gang-related violence might be on the wane, Lac du Flambeau youth are still committing acts of violence.

A “Bad Year” at Lakeland Union High School

While many community members talked about 1996 as a bad summer, staff and students at LUHS are calling the 1999-2000 school year a “bad year.”  The increased frequency and severity of violent acts is what makes this school year bad—and it’s not just about gangs. You’re “missing the boat if you only focus on gangs,” according to LUHS police officer Ray Mark. Much of the youth violence at LUHS is not attributed to gangs.

           A classroom assignment sparked a great deal of violence this year. Students in a class studying propaganda were assigned the task of creating a poster to demonstrate propaganda. One white student created a racist poster—degrading and hostile toward Native Americans—and showed the poster around the school. According to one school official, 23 documented incidents have occurred as the direct result of this one poster.

           But school counselor Paul Harshner calls the poster incident “a catalyst for something that had been building.”  Treating the poster as the cause of the trouble, according to Harshner, is missing the point entirely. The point, says Harshner, is that the Indian students are “scared to death”—so they posture, form groups, and fight “to stay alive.” The school has not grasped the magnitude of the issues faced by the students—particularly the Lac du Flambeau students. “This is a hostile place,” he says. “I promise you it is. And almost no one else will say it.” 

           Some students feel that school attempts to combat the violence problems are not working. One senior (not from Lac du Flambeau) reported that during the homeroom discussions and assemblies addressing violence, “no one takes them seriously. No one cares—they just like being out of class.” Other students concurred. A junior from Lac du Flambeau says that homeroom is a waste of time. On the other hand, the senior feels that talks given by the school policeman to each class “worked to a point.” 

Drug Activity

According to information available from the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance Uniform Crime Reporting, the most glaring increase in Lac Du Flambeau juvenile arrests was in liquor law violations, which increased from six arrests in 1998 to eighty-seven arrests in 1999—almost one-third of the total juvenile arrests for Lac du Flambeau in 1999. Other drugs used regularly by Lac du Flambeau youth include marijuana, crack, and cocaine. To a lesser degree, youth also use methamphetamines and acid.

           There are two new trends in substance abuse that both the police and parole officers have observed recently in the Lac du Flambeau community. One is the abuse of prescription drugs by youth. In the summer of 1999, the tribe’s pharmacy was burglarized and prescription drugs stolen.

           Huffing—or inhaling—air fresheners and aerosol sprays is the other new trend in juvenile drug use in Lac du Flambeau. Several high school students reported friends and siblings huffing. One student recalls seeing a friend trembling on the floor after huffing. He was scared. After the trembling stopped, this student observed the huffer to be “slower—she talked really slowly and was out of it.”  “That stuff kills a lot of brain cells,” according to the student. On average, four to six cans of air freshener are stolen from the community grocery store each month.


The Tribal Police and probation officers have seen a wide variety of weapons in Lac du Flambeau. Jim Somers, a Wisconsin state parole officer located in Lac du Flambeau, confiscates many homemade weapons from parolees on a day-to-day basis. Typical weapons include pens with exacto knives taped on the end, crudely made explosives, and razor blades taped to a variety of objects.

           According to Somers, during the hunting season almost all vehicles in the area have guns and ammunition. “It’s just a way of life around here,” he said. The problem is the combination of easy availability of guns and increasing alcohol abuse. “It’s a dangerous combination,” said Somers. In the summer of 1996, the police began to see more sophisticated weapons. At that time, they confiscated handguns, AK-47 rifles, and various assault rifles from youth in Lac du Flambeau.

Sources of Conflict

“It’s a requirement to walk in both worlds.”

Juli Smith, Family Resource Center


Community leaders from many organizations—police, schools, tribal council, the tribal courts, Family Resource Center—all agree that there is indeed a high level of youth violence, some even say gang activity, in Lac du Flambeau. No one agrees, however, about why the gangs exist and where these problems began. There seems to be a circle of finger-pointing when identifying the root causes.

Outside Influences

Police, authorities in the area, and some tribal council members believe that outside influences drive Lac du Flambeau youth to dangerous and violent activity. Since SNW can be traced back to the Twin Cities and their prison system, correctional facilities are sometimes blamed for the increase of youth violence and gang activity in Lac du Flambeau. According to Police Chief Roehl, “When these kids go through the system like Lincoln Hills [a nearby detention center for boys], they learn a lot. Sometimes the system doesn’t help—it almost does more harm than good. Some will be helped, some won’t.”

The increased sophistication of local gang activity can also be attributed to influences of more affluent Native American communities like the Potawatami and Oneida reservations to the south of Lac du Flambeau. Tribal Prosecutor Terry Hoyt sees “a strong influence from the Potawatami tribe—they have a lot of money to work with.”

Multiple Jurisdictions

An Indian reservation—because of its status as a sovereign nation—can have complicated relationships with other levels of government, and Lac du Flambeau is no exception. Jurisdictional issues are not an immediate threat or cause of youth violence and gang activity, but the confusion over who has authority seems to frustrate many of the community leaders in the Lac du Flambeau area—and hinder prevention and intervention efforts.

           According to Vilas County Deputy Sheriff Joe Fath, his patrol officers “often don’t know who to call” when a crime has been committed. This is partly due to the fact that the state often will not honor tribal court orders to incarcerate tribal youth in state detention facilities.

The conflicts and confusion about jurisdiction when Lac du Flambeau youth enter the Vilas County judicial system are exacerbated by the fact that the county funds the placement of tribal youth in detention facilities. One Vilas County staff person noted that services provided by Vilas County to the tribe cause “acrimony” between these two groups because a “large portion of the county ‘substitute care’ budget goes to tribal kids.”  This staff person says that the issue becomes political and that there are hard feelings about how much the county is paying for tribal youth. Since Lac du Flambeau does not have a youth detention facility, the tribe relies on an agreement with Vilas County for use of their incarceration facilities. 

            Fortunately, the tribal courts and the circuit court in Vilas County have positive working relationships, and the county circuit court judge will issue an order to incarcerate the youth. These good relations, however, do not trickle down to all levels of county-tribe overlap.  Staff at the tribal Family Resource Center are frustrated that Vilas County staff do not give them information about tribal youth who have gone through county juvenile intake. The Family Resource Center staff says that they do not get referrals, names, or incident reports and cannot, therefore, provide the needed services to the youth.

Lack of Consequences and Consistency

Although the Lac du Flambeau courts have a zero tolerance policy for juvenile misconduct, it holds only for minor violations. When youth commit a crime that, for example, requires incarceration, the tribal courts refer them to Vilas County, which does not abide by the zero tolerance policy. Tribal Family Resource Center staff feel frustrated because they believe Vilas County “allows too much time between crime and consequence… . It can be six to seven months after a crime before a kid even gets to court during which time the kid is involved with more incidents. Once they get to court after a long delay, there are often no consequences.”

Unfortunately, the Lac du Flambeau youth have detected this lack of consistency, too. One young man who has been out of high school for a few years smirked when asked about the zero tolerance policy. He just shook his head, “No, kids here are not scared of it [zero tolerance policy]—they laugh in the face of it and the law.”


Lac du Flambeau students are a 95 percent majority at their K-8 grade school—the Lac du Flambeau Public School. When they matriculate to Lakeland Union High School, they become a 15 percent minority—and face a community of unfamiliar students.

           The 950 students at LUHS come from thirteen townships, four primary school districts (including the Lac du Flambeau Public School), three court systems (including the Lac du Flambeau Tribal Court), and from an area 800 miles square—making this district the largest in the state, and perhaps even the largest east of the Mississippi River. This fact alone leads to one of the school’s greatest challenges—integrating into one student body students who have been fierce rivals in grade school and who come from vastly different geographical areas and social backgrounds. According to School Officer Ray Mark, it’s culture shock for tribal kids to come to high school where expectations are so different. And while this is true for the white kids coming from afar, they don’t have the same racial element to deal with.

           Both Indian and white students talk about racism at the high school. Two senior girls who are white feel that one of the main problems at the high school is that there are only two races—which leaves students unaccustomed to dealing with differences. According to one of the girls, “there is very unbased prejudice but so much prejudice.”  These girls feel that school efforts to improve race relations are not working: when mentioning the recent Race Week at school, one girl said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. We’re not in kindergarten.” The school wanted everyone to shake hands but the girls reported that this would never work because each race believes the other has diseases and doesn’t want to touch. These girls identify some of the racism coming from the parents of white students—parents feel that Indians are “taking away our rights.”

           Some Lac du Flambeau adults also influence the racial tensions at LUHS.  In Lac du Flambeau, there is a “family lore about the school—about what happened in the past or what can happen in the future” according to one community member. This lore—which seems to exacerbate issues at LUHS—indicates that this year is not the only bad one at LUHS. Lac du Flambeau youth report that their parents and even grandparents tell stories about the violence and trouble when they were students there. This talk among tribal members influences the youth.  One freshman student from Lac du Flambeau reported that other Indian students were talking about fighting the whites at LUHS—even before they were students at LUHS.

           Charges of racism are also aimed at white school staff. One freshman student from Lac du Flambeau says that Indians gets punished more often—that Indian students are physically restrained during fights while white students are left to walk away, for example. This student also reports that Indian and white students are seated separately in some classrooms and that white students have a longer period of time to complete homework. This student has had older siblings at the school who caused a lot of trouble. When one teacher met this student, the teacher said, “Oh another [family name] kid.” When this student reported that two more family members would soon be at the school, the teacher said, “Thanks for the warning.”  A high school junior reported that a teacher wouldn’t call on his sister even though she was the only one with her hand raised.

           Some of the racism is unintentional, according to Counselor Paul Harshner.  Nonetheless, “There’s a great deal of denial that there is hostility and that the violence is related to race,” says Harshner. “But things have been so bad this year that they can’t deny it anymore. Now denial is about the causes [of the trouble].”  Two high school seniors who are not tribal members also report that this year has been worse. They note, “Racism started earlier and has been building and not solved; both sides think people are out to get them.”

           People from the county courts, the schools, and within the tribe all report that students who got A’s and B’s at Lac du Flambeau Public School reach the high school and start to fail.  The hostility and tension at LUHS—the racism, too—appear to be important sources of stress that lead Lac du Flambeau students to struggle and fail at LUHS.

Conflicts Within the Tribe

While racism certainly places tremendous pressure on Lac du Flambeau youth, violence and conflict also exist between tribal members. The beatings last spring and summer were between tribal members, for example.

Indian student mentor Melvin Buckholtz identified the “crab pot syndrome” as a major source of trouble for Indian youth. This syndrome uses the analogy of the crab pot in which one crab is climbing up and trying to get out of the pot while the crabs at the bottom of the pot try to pull the climber back down. According to Buckholtz, “Indian kids who do well are teased, criticized, and pulled back down” by other Indian students. Indians kids who are struggling insult the Indian students who are succeeding by calling them “apples”: implying that the Indian is red on the outside but white on the inside. Judge Ernest St. Germaine believes that “doers make the non-doers look bad,” so the non-doers have to punish the doers.

           One white senior girl at LUHS says that “Indians don’t like it when other Indians hang out with whites.”  It’s “unfortunate,” she says, because she has friends who are Indian.

Family Troubles

One of the most serious intra-tribal issues is dysfunction in tribal families—including alcoholism and other substance abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse. The family is an important piece of the puzzle when trying to understand the reasons that area youth participate in gangs and engage in violent behavior. It’s also an easy place to point blame. Family Resource Center employees like Juli Smith are encouraged that in Lac du Flambeau “many families are breaking the cycle” of dysfunction. Nonetheless, a significant and influential group of families are not.

           But it’s taboo in Indian communities to talk about other families—families handle things themselves, which is a large part of the problem, according to some community members. Many young members of these troubled families want to be well and are rejecting the bad. But they still have to go home to the bad environment where they are torn down: It’s “too hard to fight against it” when there are not role models in the family, according to one community member.

           The chief tribal judge, who sees the area youth on a consistent basis in his courtroom, believes that these kids have basic needs that are not being met at home. “Kids are looking for continuity, order, discipline, and a schedule…. They feel like they can’t count on their parents anymore.”  Melvin Buckholtz, tribal member and Indian Student Mentor at Lakeland Union High School, concurs and sees hopelessness and despair in Lac du Flambeau youth as a result of family trouble. This hopelessness, according to Buckholtz, makes it very hard for Indian youth to look into the future: “They’re not sure if there will be a party at home after school; not sure if there will be dinner for them; not sure if their clothes will be washed; not sure how they’re getting to school in the morning.” 

The lack of such basic needs as food and clean clothing makes goal-setting a foreign concept to the community youth. While extended family plays an important role in the life of tribal youth by helping meet some of these needs, the chief tribal judge feels that “[kids] need to know there’s something more beneath their feet than a slippery rug. And they need it from their parents. Their grandparents can fill in from time to time, but they need it first and foremost from their parents.”

Prevention and Intervention

“We need more people to say ‘I care’ in an unstructured way.”

Melvin Buckholtz, Indian Student Mentor


This community is working hard to improve the lives of its citizens—young and old alike. Along with government grants, money from the casino has helped fund many community initiatives for prevention and intervention efforts.

Tribal Family Resource Center

The Family Resource Center—now located in a new building in the center of town—offers alcohol and other drug abuse (AODA) counseling, family counseling, Indian child welfare services, mental health counseling, and many additional programs. Counselors at the center also serve students at Lac du Flambeau Public School and Lakeland Union High School who need individual counseling.

Staff at the Family Resource Center run many programs for youth. CHOICES is a school-year program for ninth- and tenth-grade girls while the Family Assistance Network System (FANS) is an eight-week summer program. The Community Coordinated Response (CCR) program provides a forum in which people can come together and talk about their concerns.

Lac du Flambeau Public School

The newly built Lac du Flambeau Public School is a ten-minute walk from the casino. Completed in 1993, this school serves 550 K-8 students as well as children in Head Start and Early Head Start programs. Ninety-five percent of the students at the school are Native Americans. The new school embraces the new era of education—computer labs abound, the rooms are bright and cheerful with skylights and large windows—while also embracing the heritage of the study body—walls are adorned with Native American artifacts, and student-made dream catchers hang from the ceiling.     

The conflict resolution room (CRR) is a primary method for prevention and intervention at the school. The CRR has multiple purposes: to teach and conduct mediation, teach and practice conflict resolution skills, provide a safe haven for youth who are having problems, and as a place for in- and after-school suspensions. A primary tool for the CRR staff is a behavior improvement plan, which is written with the student. School staff believes that the CRR works about 98 percent of the time and they see the program as unique to this school. CRR director Molly West feels that the program allows the school staff to know a lot more about what’s going on in the school than they would without it.

           A school board “anti-gang policy” also exists as a prevention method. The policy defines a gang as “individuals who associate with each other primarily for criminal, disruptive, and/or other activities prohibited by law and/or by the School District’s rule and regulations.” School administrators believe that the policy is working because they see little gang activity at the school. One school staff member reports that there is little gang activity at the grade school “because the kids know that the school will crack down immediately.”  The person notes, however, that kids just take their activities elsewhere, including to shacks in the woods.

           The Leadership Academy is a school within the school. This charter school—also called the alternative education program—has one class for students in grades 4-5 and another class for students in grades 6-8. This program serves students with average to above-average intelligence who are not learning disabled (LD) or emotionally disturbed (ED) but who are just not making it—“falling through the cracks” according to one staff member—in the regular classrooms. With 10-15 students in each classroom, the program seeks to help students have a more positive attitude about school and uses a computerized curriculum to teach reading, spelling, language, math, and science.

Lakeland Union High School

Two Indian student mentors aid Lac du Flambeau teens in their years at LUHS. Funded by the tribe, they provide a greatly needed service to tribal kids at the high school. These two mentors help remind the students that someone cares about them, that they need to plan for the future, and that they have support. LUHS also has two social workers and two guidance counselors—more than most schools around the state.

The 1999-2000 school year marks the first year of the LUHS school board’s zero tolerance policy for violent activity—one of the last schools in the state to implement such a policy. Because the program is so new, it appears that students are testing the system. Since November 1999, says high school parent and Family Resource Center staff person Juli Smith, there have been 11 expulsions—only three of which were boys. But, Smith says, the school is still learning how to implement this new policy and it is typical for there to be more suspensions during the first year of policy implementation.

The alternative education program offered at the grade school—the Leadership Academy—might soon be offered to high school students. Through a consortium with Lac du Flambeau Public School, the high school will use the Lac du Flambeau Public School facilities in the evenings to educate students who aren’t making it at the high school. The program, which is scheduled to being in the fall of 2000, will involve students working 4-6 hours during the day and attending school for 2-3 hours in the evening. While the high school program is not restricted to tribal students, staff expects most of the students to be from Lac du Flambeau.

A Hopeful Future?

“I have to say that we are looking very hard at trying to work with our young people who need help beyond the constructive programs that are being addressed at our Abinoojiiyag Center.”

-Tom Maulson, Chairman of the Lac du Flambeau Tribal Council,

Lac du Flambeau News, Feb. 19, 1999


Leaders of the Lac du Flambeau band of Lake Superior Chippewa have their eyes open to the plight of youth on the reservation. This is an important first step in combating youth violence and gang activity—as well as for giving tribal youth a more hopeful future. Youth interaction with the surrounding non-Indian communities, however, continues to be a struggle for today’s tribal youth—similar to the struggle their parents and grandparents faced. Can the struggle stop with this generation?  What will it take to stop the struggle?

Student achievement at LUHS is improving. While only 64 percent of Flambeau kids graduate compared to 92 percent graduating school-wide, the number has been as low as 28 percent in the past. Yet one high school senior from Lac du Flambeau said that she “wouldn’t send my kids [to LUHS], never. I want to send them far, far away.”  Strong emotions like these are common among Lac du Flambeau youth.  Something still needs to change for them.

Youth Suggestions

Both white and Indian high school students offer suggestions for improving race relations, as well as for reducing the violence at school.

One Lac du Flambeau junior suggests having one study hall for the kids “who have trouble with each other.”  A student leader or mediator would listen to both sides of the story and help find a solution. An adult counselor, he recommends, would be there as back-up. This same student would like to have two assemblies—one with white students and one with Indian students. The assembly would be a time for students to talk to other students, rather than the usual adult talking to students. He would like to tell fellow students to follow rules and integrate and that “not everything is racial.” 

The two senior girls, who are not from Lac du Flambeau, recommend teaching more about other cultures in class. The current “world cultures” class is not enough, they say. What is needed is a class that really looks at how others live. “We have so much to learn from other cultures,” one girl said.

One Lac du Flambeau freshman reports that the expulsions are working—she hears her friends talking about not wanting to miss credits.

Adult Suggestions

As Chairman Maulson said, the Youth Center is providing a broad array of constructive programs and is an important prevention method. Yet there is a group of students, those engaging in youth violence and gang activity, which the Youth Center is not reaching. Mentor Melvin Buckholtz believes that a group of adults is needed to say “I care” in an unstructured way. The tribe now has a van and two parents who take tribal kids to a wrestling club in town—which integrates the kids with the surrounding community before high school. According to Buckholtz, more efforts like this one are needed. “Honesty, caring, and sincerity” are what make the difference with youth, he says.

           While Buckholtz has suggestions for the tribe, counselor Paul Harshner offers suggestions for the high school. He sees a need to “change professional intuitive philosophies.”  Rather than using the current carrot and stick method for behavior modification, the school, in his opinion, needs to use a new system built on mutual respect and in which the teacher is a “continuous learner, guide, mentor, and sage.”  Harshner believes that it is making a “head and heart” connection that is most important for helping reduce the violence, rather than looking for “magical bullets” in new programs.

           Staff at the school seem only to see the hostility and violent behavior, says Harshner. The kids, he says, need the teachers and staff to look behind the hostility, to be patient, persistent, and show Indian students that they care.

           “Have reasonable rules and enforce them fairly,” says Police Officer Ray Mark. Rather than make new rules or laws, consistent enforcement of current laws and rules is needed—and in a timely manner. A community-wide effort, between Vilas County staff, both schools, the Family Resource Center, the tribal court and council, and other programs that work with youth can help create a consistent set of consequences.

Improving Prevention and Intervention

Community members who report that there has been less gang activity since the SNW leaders went to prison also note that these gang leaders are getting out of prison soon—one, in fact, was released recently. The concerted effort to take the wind out of the gang’s sails once might be needed again—soon.

           As a result, the Lac du Flambeau tribe must be prepared to employ the targeted and timely methods of law enforcement used during the bad summer. Some community members have mentioned reinstituting tribal banishment as a way to handle these youth.  Sending them back to prison is also mentioned. These two methods, however, could be considered by the surrounding communities as socially irresponsible—particularly banishment—because the tribe is leaving other communities to handle these troubled youth. Other methods of intervention are needed.

           Student and adults alike indicate that special connections between youth and their elders have made a big difference for both prevention and intervention efforts. One high school junior reported that he “turned himself around” because he remembered something his grandmother told him: “to listen to how ignorant people are and that they are complaining, and that racism is about jealousy.” This young man cites his grandmother’s words as the source of his life changes—to stop fighting, stop abusing drugs, and stop missing school. A second young man wrote his grandmother a letter a few months ago indicating that her continued support during his incarceration helped show him how much he had to be grateful for.

           Continued efforts to involve Lac du Flambeau adults in the lives of community youth are especially important, as is evident from the lives of two Lac du Flambeau youth. A one-on-one mentoring program for youth convicted of crimes or in trouble at school could provide the adult connection that seems to work for some youth. This program might seek adults in the community who are not already working at the schools but who are interested in supporting community youth. While the program could provide some organized activities, it seems that informal contact might be more effective with youth who are already committing acts of violence—this mentor could be someone to keep an eye out for the youth, call to “see how things are going,” and to initiate one-on-one activities.

           While informal relationships between community youth and adults could enhance intervention efforts, a formal relationship between the community and the schools seems warranted. A liaison between the Tribal Family Resource Center and Lac du Flambeau Public School and Lakeland Union High School could provide the needed link between the tribe and youth in school.  This liaison could ensure that youth who need Family Resource Center services are indeed getting them.  Attending expulsion hearings, being a contact for the conflict resolution room staff, and meeting regularly with school administrators could be one way to intervene with community youth.

           Youth input could also help to create effective intervention.  Some youth suggestions are mentioned in this paper but many other suggestions are alive in the minds of community youth.  Including youth in the problem-solving process is an important first step for Lac du Flambeau.

Page updated January 15, 2014

 “Anishinabe” is an Ojibwe term for “Human Beings.”