June 1, 2015

Study signals risk factors for gang involvement among Native youths

Dane Hautala

Dane Hautala

Over the last three decades, street gangs have seeped into rural areas – including Native reservations, where youth gang involvement has been steadily rising since the 1990s.

In a recently published study, UNL sociology graduate student Dane Hautala examined several risk factors for future gang involvement among Native youth. Using longitudinal data collected from 646 North American indigenous youth over eight years, Hautala focused on 18 different possible factors.

Some of the strongest predictors for future gang involvement are low family income, decreased parental monitoring, perceived racial discrimination, depressive symptoms, tobacco and alcohol use, and general delinquency.

Most surprising, though, was how much individual characteristics like mental health issues – specifically perceived discrimination – could predict future gang involvement.

“For the most part, the American Indian literature fit with the urban gang literature, but there are quite a few risk factors that haven’t been examined that we were able to measure, including mental health factors (such as) depressive symptoms, anger and perceived discrimination,” Hautala said.

“Perceived discrimination hasn’t been looked at at all in the gang literature, which is interesting because gangs are often race- or ethnically centered,” he said.

Those who perceive to be the target of more discrimination early on have higher odds of later gang activity, according to the study, which by comparison with earlier research featured a large sample size and geographic diversity among participants.

“Most of the research on indigenous gang involvement is with really small sample sizes or convenience samples, or they’re small, qualitative studies,” Hautala said. “One of the big strengths of this study is that it’s longitudinal and we were able to establish time ordering between risk factors and later gang involvement, which is relatively rare in the extant gang literature.”

Hautala said it’s important for more research on indigenous youth involvement in gangs because the cultural contexts are so different for Native youths than they are for urban gangs. He also said that any prevention and intervention models should be tailored to Native populations.

“A lot of the historical contexts that shape risk factors are much different for indigenous youths,” Hautala said. “A big thing to take away is that prevention or intervention programs should be culturally adapted.”

The study was published online in the journal Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice. It is co-authored by Kelley J. Sittner of Oklahoma State University and Les B. Whitbeck, also of UNL.