In the shadow of Aboriginal treaty rights and land claims struggles, a different order of “turf wars” is taking shape. Native gang members are currently engaged in mortal combat over street corners, “stables,” schools and local community centres as they vie for dominance in the street drug trade. Aboriginal media is frequently invoked in anti-gang strategies as a possible alternative to criminal activity and as one model for productive labor. Native film crews, however, are taking to the streets in ways that may both appeal to and challenge conventional compositions of community, traditionalism, and Aboriginality. Urban Aboriginal gangs and Native film crews provide a response to the question of “place” for Native youth of the Canadian Prairies (Buddle 2006).
Urban Native youth gangs and media production crews are protean public sites of socialization and provide contexts for significant socio-cultural work to be done. As contact zones for new forms of kinship production and channels for newly developed competencies, gangs and media crews engender alternative orders of sociability. Despite the solace gangs may offer to urban Aboriginal adolescents, however, these peer groups inevitably become saturated with contradictory meanings. Street sociality becomes intimately linked with survival; the material ethos of the gang undermines the ideological goals of the nation; and the home and the hood become conflated.
Tagging and Turflessness
As youth who engage in adult-like behavior in the public sphere, gang members evoke a social liminality and index disorder in the relations between public and private domains (Feldman 2002: 289). At the same time, inner-city peer groups may provide the necessary psychological space for youths to contest constraining structures and to experiment with symbolic materials informing notions of masculinity, brotherhood, community, Aboriginality, and public agency. By re-signifying and reconfiguring these elements, gang members are able to formulate and perform a unified image of their difference from their others. Playing up the gang values, ethic or code in defiance of those rules that condemn young Native men to defeated lives, gang members act out their critiques of Canadian citizenship and of Indian Country cultural politics.
Borne of shared interest and experience, gangs provide new spaces of belonging and facilitate the forging of identifications, outlooks, and behaviors among otherwise alienated youth. Thus, contemporary gangs, much like spaces of Aboriginal media production or political action, appear to represent sites of sedition where Aboriginal youth create alternative cultural codes and new spaces of fellowship in the city -— at once tactically seizing a place for themselves and defying exclusion by “others.”
Frequently comprised by youths exiled from domestic spheres, reserve migrants, and by individuals newly released from corrections facilities, Native youth gangs incorporate individuals in transition — from bush to street, from boy to man, from weak to fit. Gangs provide a viable means for negotiating a range of new territories and processes. Because gangs rely on a complex set of emotional and symbolic ties to internally order their members, they may be especially alluring to those who are without any connections, money, or position, and who yearn for an answer to the demands of place (Buddle et al 2006). Violence, moreover, provides gang members with a direct method for delineating their oppressed relationship to their environment. Former members concede, however, that the cost of membership is high and few ultimately find in the gang solutions to their existential dilemmas.
Like gangs, Native street film crews are generally not oriented to extend a national identity into explicitly political pursuits, but toward relational goals. Although they mark different approaches to “peering,” they each address processes of identification (cf. Schouls 2003) and strategies for socially organizing symbolic power (cf. Bourdieu 1984). Both modes of youth-driven social solidarity transmit teachings on “how to be human” (cf. Curtis 1998: 1237). Privileging “family” as a unifying principle, each seems to offer asylum seekers a version of home: whether as a place of belonging, intimacy, and security, or one of humiliation, danger, and fear. Whereas both film crews and gangs set up their own initiation rites, distinguish their own values, and re-script public and private spaces, film community contexts are more likely to be recognized as sites of socialization for good “cultural citizenship” and to receive state and First Nations’ support.
As sociologist Mike Davis insists, “like the Tramp scares in the nineteenth century, or the Red scares in the twentieth, the contemporary Gang scare has become an imaginary class relationship, a terrain of pseudo-knowledge and fantasy projection” (cited in Boga 1994: 486). While gangs are generally characterized as the rootless antithesis to respectable, sedentary, traditional Native peoples and other citizens of the city, gangs are at once collective and contradictory expressions of contemporary First Nations culture and politics. Internally fractured and currently without real leaders, Native gangs lack the political consciousness and organizational expertise to engage in any form of concerted political action. Instead, they point more to an everyday style of warfare, occurring just below the surface and requiring subtle tactics and unconventional forms of resistance.
Members of Aboriginal gangs in Winnipeg seem to view gangs in contradictory ways — as integral components of the community or as neighborhood institutions, at once performing services for and exploiting their “neighbors.” Winnipeg Native youth often see themselves as protectors of the community, draw on the dialectic image of crooked or gang-like police as the troublemaking interlopers, and charge the media with fabricating fantastical images of gang life by failing to cover the economic problems that pervade poor non-white neighborhoods. Invoking the fantasies of white, labor-free affluence and conflict-free tribal communalism, Native youth gangs traffic in the hyper-real, engaging what Zilberg refers to as a “disorganized mimesis” (Zilberg 2007: 41), copying the other of an imaginary relation, and nihilistically embracing the circumstances and forces against them.
With the departure of the senior crew toward the late 1990’s, however, the gradual eclipse of an organizing principle centered on “protection” by drug enterprising practices would unhinge the moral compass of the gang. The organization transformed from a pool of community support and solidarity into an agent of destruction.
Ervin Chartrand (Métis), former Vice President of the Manitoba Warriors and now a filmmaker, insists that few would join gangs today if legitimate alternatives were imaginable. For those who find themselves without the disciplining effects of traditions and extended families, and equally unaffected by city controls such as schools, police, and employers, urban gangs — with their own boundaries, values, rules and styles of sociality — emerge to provide structure where there is none. The gang, more than the reserve, the First Nation, or the family, achieves priority as the primary social and economic unit for those urban youth with access to a relatively limited arsenal of defensive maneuvers and a narrowly imagined repertoire of possible lives. Still, the territory over which gangs battle is less ideological than it is material. As Dutton rejoins, “backstreet conflicts are aimed at survival, not the articulation of principles. They are always about ‘making do,’ not seizing power” (1999: 74).
Both Brian Contois and Ervin Chartrand renounced their gang affiliations and have committed themselves to pro-youth activism, providing educational workshops for at-risk urban youth. Several former-gang members in Winnipeg have formed Drums, hip-hop bands, and other circles. In the tradition of Big Soul Productions’ Moccasin Flats, Native Counselling Services of Alberta’s Gang Aftermath, and the Sharing Circle’s Long Road, Full Circle, Chartrand includes training spaces for former gang members in the filmmaking units he convenes. In general, Aboriginal media-production activities tend to be linked with wider social movements that are restorative of interpersonal relations and productive of community empowerment (Ginsburg 2002).
Aboriginal community expectations of filmic productions tend to incorporate both aesthetic and didactic components. Successful adaptations tend to be those that are not simply assessed by Native audiences to tell a good story and look or sound “professional;” they must appropriately reflect recognizable aspects of “Aboriginality” and “locality” (see also Buddle “Urban Aboriginal Gangs…” 2007, “Alterity, Activism…” 2007).
Yet, like all social fields, Aboriginal community filmmaking values are susceptible to transformation. With greater opportunities for training and specialization, it has recently become possible for Native cultural producers to support themselves solely as camera operators, directors or editors. Not always well-versed in the historic struggles of their Native media activist forebears, however, many today identify with a contemporary community of industry professionals instead of seeking solidarity outside the media community or across the ages according to an activist code. It is ironic that as youth abandon the Darwinesque materialism of gangs to explore alternative relational avenues through the media, Native media practices are beginning to reference a subjectifying discourse that defines professionalism in the individualized terms common to late capitalist enterprise.
Veteran Aboriginal producers continue to lead by example, functioning as would political or hunt leaders. They assume responsibility for feasting and, depending on the location, transporting and housing those from whom they command labor. For them, cultivating a “good” reputation in the media community still involves repeatedly achieving successful fundraising goals, maintaining influence and connections among members of Native and non-Native business and media communities, providing role modeling opportunities, demonstrating copious generosity and an abundance of patience, and conducting their affairs “in a good way” so as to meet collectively defined ethical standards (see also Buddle 2005, Leuthold 1998).
Generally, those youth-driven Native filmmaking units that are endowed with mentoring supports do continue to distinguish their work from non-Native projects. This is evinced in the ways they idiosyncratically blend elements of the old and new guard Aboriginal media aesthetics. By involving a stable network of former gang affiliated individuals and their families in his projects, for example, Chartrand produces a pseudo extended-family environment. This mimetic work strategy references the traditional work unit found in Native farming and hunting communities (see Carter, 1990; Francis & Morantz, 1983). In casting a white woman for a Native role in his short film “Sister,” however, Chartrand challenged prevailing expectations concerning realist aesthetics and blood-determined modalities of belonging.
From Big House to Home
Chartrand created his first film, entitled “504938C” (2005)—his prison ID number—with the support of the Winnipeg Film Group’s First Film program. Filmed entirely inside the Stony Mountain Penitentiary, the dramatic short plays on the tension between blood ties and gang affiliations. The cast includes individuals from Chartrand’s extended family, as well as several former gang members. The score features a former gangster turned hip-hop artist. Chartrand uses the short as a pedagogic instrument to promote discussion during his pro-youth workshops. His films function to dissuade gang involvement among youth, but also remind the corrections officials who attend of the gang members’ humanity. The film points to the underlying structural forces that render gang membership a rational social and economic option for Aboriginal youth. Chartrand shows that both Native gangs and film units may find themselves on the other side of the law — the former fighting for social justice, the later for economic parity. While gang members are invariably defeated, however, Native filmmakers’ acts of documentary defiance have the potential to fight the law and win.
Still, because the film units are largely off-reserve or urban-based entities located in southern Canada, a mostly Christianized Native North often finds itself at odds with the neo-traditional agendas that inform some southern-based urban Aboriginal media projects. In this way, Native film units — much like Native northerners who work for hydroelectric companies or lumbering corporations — may unwittingly undermine Aboriginal nationalism. Highlighting internal dissention when power is derived from the presumed unified nature of Aboriginal political action weakens the overall force of national efforts to assert Aboriginal distinctiveness from the Canadian masses.
The life histories Chartrand and Contois share with youth de-glamorize the gangs and provide Native youth with proven strategies with which to meaningfully intervene in their own lives — through shooting film, hoops, or moose, as opposed to each other. Contois now aligns himself with the Okijida Warriors, a traditional Anishinaabe secret society organized around the principle of community protection. Chartrand, a film activist, works collaboratively to develop social programs with a variety of Aboriginal organizations as well as the Native media community. Each endeavor aims to build the social capital necessary for ex-gang members to begin the long process of remaking their “selves,” to begin healing the social, spiritual, and physical scarring that structural violence and the cruel irony of self-perpetuated cultural dissolution have inscribed on their minds and bodies. Once awakened to a conception of the value of alternate models for relatedness and solidarity, Native youth may find a redemptive re-positioning within family folds and refuge in Aboriginal arms of a different order.
For a longer version of this paper, see Buddle “Urban Aboriginal Gangs and Street Sociality in the Canadian West: Places, Performances and Predicaments of Transition” (2007). I am very grateful to Ervin Chartrand and to Brian Contois for their generous contributions to this research, and to the Southern Chiefs’ Organization and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak for allowing me to cite material from the original report.
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