For Vincent Schilling’s feature story on Native American gangs, click here.
As the baby of the family, Ahna always knew she was going to follow in the footsteps of her brothers and cousins and join the “family.” Ahna says there was no option but to join because she needed protection from rival gangs. So at the age of 9, during the years of her childhood that should have been filled with bedtime stories and piggy-back rides, she was exposed to a world of violence, drugs and alcohol, and she started committing crimes to survive. “I’ve seen a lot of blood, and I’ve seen a lot of fights,” she says. “I’ve seen one person get shot—the bullet hit him in the chest. It was surreal. I could see it clearly and it hit him in the chest from the right side. My brother and I were not involved, and we just ran. I was about 11 years old.”
Even though the violence around her was extreme, Ahna knew that in order to survive, she had to take it all in stride. “Being in a gang makes you kind of like… You seem like you’re tough because you hide all of your emotions and you say things like, ‘Whoa, that was crazy.’ And everybody else is like, ‘Yeah, it was.’ And they go on about their day. And I was like, ‘Well, I guess I should just shake it off.”
But Ahna, Otoe-Missouria, says she could never shake off the violence, the bloodshed. “It is hard, when it happens. I used to cry a lot because of how we lived and I never felt safe when I slept in my bed. Some people threw a brick into my brothers’ window and it was the room next to me. Now I don’t feel safe even when I am safe.”
Growing up in Oklahoma City, Ahna and other members of the Family had to contend with rival gangs—Native, black and white. “When we got into fights, people would throw out names that were derogatory and racial, like ‘prairie nigger.’ It was really hurtful.”
Ahna says fighting for territory was a principal cause for altercations with other gangs. “If we know that you are part of that gang and you’re walking through [our territory] then you’re definitely trying to say something. If you do that then you’re looking to start a fight and we’ll start cussing and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ It’s really stupid now that I think about it.”
Ahna was also the caretaker of her family when she was young. However, watching her brothers get into trouble and having to visit several bars night after night in order to find her mother and take her home took its toll, and when she was 15, she decided to leave “bangin’?” behind. She moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where she lived with her grandfather. Several years later, Ahna still says leaving the gang life was hard. “I am not even near gangs anymore, and I still cry for the people who were lost—and I find myself praying more often for the people who are suffering. How do I move on from that? I cry about a lot of stuff. It is the only way I can cope.”
Today Ahna is the only member of her immediate family who has graduated from high school. She recently entered an internship program at a local hospital and works two jobs to pay the bills. She hopes one day to get a job in the medical field.