The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - American Indian communities are being overwhelmed by gang violence and drug trafficking, tribal leaders told lawmakers Thursday, appealing for help with problems more commonly found in big cities.

Tribal law enforcement officials, testifying before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, described severely undermanned police departments that must patrol reservations the size of small states, allowing gangs to thrive and turning reservations into hubs for drug distribution.

Drug traffickers have infiltrated gangs because the reservations are remote and undetected by law enforcement. Indian police forces, meanwhile, often lack jurisdiction or the resources to stop the trail of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines.

"There exists in Indian Country today the twin scourge of drug abuse and criminal gang activity," said Carmen Smith, police chief for the Warm Springs, Ore., Tribal Police Department. "These two menaces, left unchecked, will undermine the very fabric of Native American society."

At the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, 39 gangs have led to thousands of gang-related police calls. At the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, in eastern Washington state, two predominantly Mexican gangs and four tribal gangs battle for territory.

In the Navajo Nation, the 27,000 square-mile reservation that spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, 225 active gangs roam the reservation, swamping law enforcement.

"We need more officers and we need them now," said Hermis John Mousseau, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council at Pine Ridge. "We have 5,000 gang members, but we also have 45,000 scared law abiding people whose lives I have sworn to protect."

In South Dakota, Mousseau said his police department of 48 officers 12 per shift - must patrol a reservation the size of Rhode Island. Many of their police calls are 50 to 60 miles apart, leaving their response time to an hour for even the most violent acts. Many calls go unanswered.

The cases are hardly routine. Pine Ridge has battled an influx of drugs from Minneapolis, Denver and Omaha, Neb., Mousseau said.

Brian Nissen, council member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, said gang activity has led to the rapes of young women and routine assaults between rival gangs.

Federal authorities are frequently reluctant to investigate and prosecute violent crimes inside the reservation, Nissen said, and tribal courts can only sentence someone to a year in jail if U.S. prosecutors decline to prosecute.

"These gangs are treating Indian reservations as safe havens to distribute drugs and perpetuate their violence," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the committee's chairman.

Dorgan expressed hope that Congress will approve a bill this year to strengthen law enforcement in Indian Country.

Lawmakers are working on legislation that would improve coordination between the Justice Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal law enforcement, encourage more aggressive action by federal prosecutors on tribal reservations and allow tribal courts to punish offenders to up to three years in prison.