James Cross feared the man was already dead when he found him unconscious and slumped against the doorway of a portable toilet inside a crowded homeless camp in south Minneapolis.

After yelling for help, Cross frantically pumped the man’s chest and took turns breathing into his mouth, to no avail, before stabbing him six times in the thigh with syringes of Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of heroin. When emergency workers arrived, the man had already come back to life and was cradling his head on Cross’ shoulders, according to people who witnessed the rescue.

“We’ve gotta show who’s in control. Otherwise, it would be chaos out here,” Cross said, recalling the incident as he walked through the crowded camp in recent days..

Cross, 52, has spent almost half his life in prison for drug-related crimes, including 14 years for his role in a drive-by shooting. Yet this charismatic former gang member and ex-addict has transformed his life and now stands at the forefront of a burgeoning movement to drive drug dealers out of American Indian communities across Minnesota.

Thousands of Indians have joined the street outreach group he founded, known as Natives Against Heroin (NAH), which is known for confrontational tactics and spiritual healing methods to battle the widening drug epidemic.

“James knows the streets. He knows addiction, and the powerful force that he is,” said Peter McLaughlin, a Hennepin County commissioner who represents much of south Minneapolis. “He is a great voice for the community.”

Cross and his growing army of red-shirted volunteers have marked their turf by showing up at dozens of drug houses across the state with drums, burning sage and cries of “Shut it down!” With recent grants from the city of Minneapolis, NAH last year began conducting nighttime patrols of the Little Earth housing project and nearby neighborhoods, where they sweep the streets for used needles and confront pushers. It is dangerous work: The unarmed volunteers have been threatened, assaulted and had guns drawn on them while on patrols.

“I pray for James every day, because he is literally putting his life on the line for people in need,” said Richard Latterner, treatment manager at the White Earth Opiate Treatment Program in Minneapolis and an early organizer of NAH. “He has a huge heart.”

Now Cross and his organization have thrust themselves into a rancorous debate over a rapidly growing homeless encampment near the Little Earth housing project in Minneapolis, which sprang up almost overnight this summer and has quadrupled in the past month, becoming one of the largest and most visible homeless camps in state history.

After weeks of deliberation, Minneapolis city officials have resolved to move the nearly 300 men, women and children who live at the camp — many of whom are using heroin and methamphetamine — into one or more emergency shelters by early October. But Cross has established himself as the visible leader of the camp and has been encouraging residents to dig in until more reliable housing and substance-use treatment options are found.

As a show of defiance, Cross’ group last week began building more than a dozen large tepees at the encampment. He and a group of NAH volunteers, who operate a large tent with donated supplies at the center of the camp, have also been recruiting residents willing to go to jail in case of a showdown with authorities, Cross said.

“We’re sending a message that this is Native land and we’re not backing down,” said Cross, who spoke as NAH volunteers arrived with wooden poles and ropes for the tepees.

Don’t mess with James

Cross lives in a modest duplex near the Mississippi River bluffs in St. Paul, in a quiet residential neighborhood that seems a world removed from the needle-infested streets that his group patrols at night. His living room is adorned with photos of his three sons and middle-school granddaughter in her volleyball uniform. A giant dreamcatcher hangs from his front window.

Though tall and athletic-looking in his trademark sports jerseys, Cross admits he never expected to live past his 20s. He and his twin brother, Gerald, were taken at age 4 from their Anishinaabe and Dakota parents, who were both alcoholics, and adopted by white parents who lived in Minneapolis. Cross said he never felt loved in the adoptive family and began using and selling drugs at age 14 as a means of escape.

One afternoon, the Cross brothers were standing on E. Franklin Avenue in south Minneapolis when members of the Latin Gangster Disciples street gang pulled up and asked them to unload a pound of marijuana. The brothers sold it so quickly that the gang doubled their next delivery. The orders quickly grew until Cross and his brother were formally invited to join the gang. Tattoos of the Latin Gangster Disciples insignia are spread across Cross’ back and legs.

Cross would spend most of the next two decades in and out of state prisons, where he boxed competitively with other inmates and built a reputation as an enforcer.

“People knew not to mess with James,” said Greg Franson, a longtime friend and ex-gang member who was incarcerated with Cross at the state prison in St. Cloud. Cross was charged with attempted murder in 1990 after a passenger in a car he was driving tried to shoot a rival gang member and hit an innocent woman instead. The attempted murder charge was dismissed in a plea deal, but Cross was convicted of first-degree felony assault.

There are long stretches of time from that period that Cross barely remembers, when he was in the grips of drug binges. His reckless lifestyle finally came to a head in October 2001, when a police officer caught him shooting up meth while driving, using his long legs to steer the vehicle as he jabbed the needle into his arm. His longtime wife, Teresa Cross, a nurse, showed up at the jail with their three children and delivered an ultimatum: Either clean up or he would never be allowed to see his wife and children again.

“I cried harder than I’d ever cried before,” Cross said. “I stopped using and never looked back.”

Building a movement

Soon after his release, Cross became an outreach worker for the White Earth Nation’s treatment program in Minneapolis, while organizing a series of “talking circles” in the Little Earth housing project for people struggling with addiction. Meetings began with members of the circle “smudging,” an Indian ritual in which burning sage is used to drive out dark spirits. Cross welcomed members by saying, “Don’t judge, smudge,” which soon became one of the group’s slogans.

The circles kept growing until members began asking broader questions about why so many of their relatives across the state were dying of drug overdoses, and why the epidemic was disproportionately affecting Native communities. In 2015, Minnesota had the greatest disparity in the country in the rates of overdose deaths between American Indians and whites, according to a Minnesota Department of Health report.

“We knew that talk was no longer enough, that we had to take the fight to the streets and build a movement,” said Margarita Ortega, one of the founding members of NAH and a chief adviser.

The group’s first major action was a massive march last summer through the Red Lake Indian Reservation, where tribal leaders had declared the rampant opioid abuse a public health emergency. The event drew so much attention that Red Lake’s leaders took the extraordinary step of banishing members involved in drug dealing.

Last fall, NAH volunteers began showing up at houses and apartment buildings identified by community members as drug sites. After surrounding the homes and shouting “Shut it down,” members of the group would approach residents struggling with addiction, offering information on where to go for help. The group has organized two dozen of these so-called “shutdowns” across the state. There have been also been less-public “rescue operations,” in which Cross has ventured inside drug houses to pull out women who are being sexually exploited by dealers, members said.

Despite the risks, Cross insists he is not about to slow down or change his organization’s approach. There are long nights when Cross, who receives no pay for his work for NAH, patrols the homeless encampment alone with a baseball bat or a large stick as a visible message to dealers to stay away. One night last week, Cross said, he had to eject a man who was threatening a woman. His fingers were still red and scuffed from the altercation that he described.

“We’ll roll up on anyone who tries to deal out here,” Cross said, as he gazed over the growing camp. “No dealer can stand up to an entire community — not one that’s united and prepared to fight.”