I was in a street gang once. It was a long time ago and I was 17.
There were 10 of us and we were called the Freaks.
As a gang, the Freaks weren’t feared by anyone nor were we acquainted with the police on anything other than a casual wave of the hand to clear us off the steps of the old courthouse in St. Catherines, Ontario, where we congregated.
We were nothing like aboriginal street gangs of today. It was 1973 and the tidal wave of Flower Power that was the 1960s still ebbed on the beaches of our consciousness.
There was great rock music and if we were stoners, we were harmless dabblers. We were peaceniks. We had no desire for control or violence or mayhem.
The Freaks were a bunch of displaced teenagers. We had left our homes because of familial breakdowns, domestic violence or abuse, and went to the streets of the city. We found each other in our travels and we became a gang in the very loosest terms.
We were dropouts, poor, and often unemployed. Just a collection of lost souls who clung to each other for community.
There were tremendous rock concerts then. Ticket prices were still reasonable and we would pool our money and go. There were shows in Buffalo’s Rich Memorial Stadium, Hamilton’s Ivor Wynn Stadium, Maple Leaf Gardens and the Forum in Montreal.
We saw Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Who, Neil Young and a host of other rock music giants.
When we weren’t on the road we gathered in the pavilion at Montebello Park. We drank cheap wine and listened to music. We played Frisbee.
We talked about where we came from, some of the hurts, the difficulties and the dreams we had for our futures. We shared food and cash and crashed on each others’ couches when we were lucky enough to have one. Montebello Park was our haven. Our turf.
The Night Stalkers were a local car club. They were moneyed kids from the West Side. They drove around in their fancy, tricked-out cars with the name of their gang on their bumpers. They were shiny and beautiful and the kids gleamed in comparison to us.
We Freaks were a pedestrian gang. Whenever they passed us, the Night Stalkers would blare their horns, yell taunts, spin their tires and laugh at us.
Inevitably, because we were teenagers, we’d meet at the same place. It was usually the roller-skating rink where all the teens went on weekends.
The roller rink was the social networking site of 1973. It was an important place in teen culture. So now and then, when differences surfaced with no recourse, there’d be fights in the parking lot. Two combatants squared off and they generally ended in nothing more than a bloody nose or a blackened eye.
One by one the Freaks got jobs or settled into a relationship or left town. The Night Stalkers drifted off to university or college. It was harmless teenage tribalism and it marked none of us. But I remember those days for their stark contrast to the aboriginal gang era we live in now.
There are aboriginal gangs everywhere. They flourished in the concrete rez of prisons and spread to the urban rez, the low-income neighbourhoods of cities, and nowadays, to the reservation communities themselves.
They emulate the big city gangs of the United States and in their tattoos, graffiti, clothing, music, gang sign, argot and violence, proclaim themselves as warriors.
But there’s nothing warrior-like about them. Nor is there any semblance of native pride.
Instead, there is only a broad, dismal caricature and the struggle to maintain it costs lives, disrupts homes, destroys communities and makes each us, native or not, angered and wounded and ultimately, victimized.
They are a blight and when native politicians cite the big issues facing our people, they never mention gangs. They never mention lives lost to random shootings, knifings, addiction, prostitution or prison, never mention the sad irony of our own people selling each other, killing each other, oppressing each other.
When the people of Hobbema stood up and took action to try to eliminate gangs from their community, it should have been a wake-up call to native politicos whose words about self-government don’t include action.
There’s no time to wait for government funding. There’s no time for amendments to legislation or wordy negotiations. Our people are dying and it’s got to stop.
The days when all it took was a bloody nose to settle disputes are long gone. Now they use automatic weapons.
Now they use children as mules for their drug dealing. Now they lean on intimidation and fear. It takes some sand to stand up to violent men. But Hobbema did it and native politicians should too.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday.