Sex Trafficking at Home
American Indian, Native Alaskan and Native Canadian women and girls from rural areas are prime targets for sex traffickers.
“Joker waited until I had brought myself down really low. That’s when he pushed me to work for the gang,” Maggie told me.
Maggie, 41, is from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. She is describing how her boyfriend, Joker, began trafficking her into the sex trade.
Fleeing a violent husband, she left the reservation for a new life in Minneapolis. She became addicted to drugs and came to rely on her boyfriend, a member of a local street gang, for drugs and companionship. Soon, however, he insisted that she be initiated into his gang, a process involving gang rape by several members. He also insisted that she must contribute to the gang by trading sex for drugs and money. He routinely drives her to meet “dates,” men with whom she will trade sex for money or drugs.
“He told me he loves me and that all his friends did the same thing with their girlfriends,” she said.
Sometimes, Maggie admits, she helps coerce other Indian girls into prostitution for the gang.
“He said if I really loved him, I would do anything for him,” she said.
Local social services removed her children from her home when she abandoned them in her search for drugs. Her world now revolves around Joker and the gang.
According to the Minnesota Women’s Resource Center and the Native Women’s Association of Canada, traffickers use a variety of means to draw girls and women into the sex trade. Traffickers force current prostitutes to recruit friends and relatives from reservations and reserves with false promises of easy money and the glamour of living in a big city. The Internet has also become a fertile recruiting ground in which girls are promised lucrative jobs dancing in clubs only to find themselves pushed into prostitution. They find themselves isolated and quickly lose touch with their homes, families and communities.
Maggie participates in the Center’s Healing Journey programming designed to improve the quality of life for chronic substance abusers. Her addiction, however, has bound her tightly to the cycle of prostitution and her traffickers. When sober, her shame and guilt are nearly overwhelming.
“I guess I didn’t really give a shit about nothing anymore after losing my kids. So it really don’t matter if I degrade myself,” she said.
The subject of sex trafficking usually brings to mind countries in Asia and elsewhere, far away from rural America. Recent media reports and studies by women’s groups, however, find that sex traffickers are targeting American Indian and Native Canadian women and girls, often from reservations and reserves. In many rural areas, American Indian and Native Canadian women and girls comprise the face of prostitution.
The Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center in Minneapolis recently released a study documenting sex trafficking of American Indian women and girls from the state of Minnesota. The Kellogg-Foundation-supported study “Shattered Hearts” offers a window into this shadowed world that includes trafficking women and girls to international locations.
The sexual trafficking of American Indian women is, unfortunately, not a new story to us. As a young woman, I recall hearing whispered reports about Indian women who “worked the boats” in the harbor at Duluth, Minnesota.
Families have shamefully guarded the fact that one of their own may have worked as a “boat whore,” so there is little reliable data on this form of generational prostitution. I have heard my mother and other elders tell of many girls and women who went missing after going onto the boats. Were they delivered to pimps in other locations? Were they killed? Or like too many Indian people, did they simply step off from the world of family and community? For years, mainstream law enforcement and Coast Guard authorities turned a blind eye.
In recent years, however, the trafficking of American and Canadian native women has grown in scope, numbers and attendant violence. According to the “Shattered Hearts” study, police reports from Duluth showed that Indian girls were being lured off reservations, taken onto boats in port, beaten and gang raped. Tribal advocates in South Dakota and Minnesota had also begun raising red flags, reporting that Indian girls were being trafficked into prostitution, pornography and strip shows over state lines and internationally to Mexico.
Canadian studies show that Native women and girls are hugely over-represented in the sex trade. According to a report by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, nearly 90 percent of Canada’s teen prostitutes are Native. Canada has been leading the charge in documenting the numbers and scope of Native women and girls who are lured and coerced into prostitution.
The infamous Pickton case in British Columbia outside of Vancouver in 2002 finally brought the issue to public attention, making it impossible to ignore. Robert Pickton, a pig farmer near Vancouver, was convicted of murdering six women at his rural farm. An admitted serial killer, he claimed responsibility for torturing and killing 49 women, many of whom were Native prostitutes. He chose his victims from the notorious “Low Track” neighborhood on Vancouver’s east side, known as “Canada’s poorest postal code.” Low Track is a well-known haven for drug use and sex trade activities including its “kiddie stroll,” that features underage prostitutes.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada has catalogued 520 cases of missing or murdered Native women across Canada. Advocates believe that many more cases go unreported. Most of the victims are under age 30 and lived “difficult” lives engaging in prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse and other risky behaviors.
Amnesty International of Canada notes in its “Stolen Sisters” report that Native leaders and women’s advocates had complained for years that repeated reports of missing Native women were largely ignored by Canadian authorities. According to The Globe and Mail, however, the Manitoba government announced last year that it is forming a police task force to investigate dozens of missing and murdered women in that province. Amnesty International and advocates maintain that many of the missing women were victims of sexual trafficking.
Although the word “trafficking” implies movement, human trafficking does not require crossing borders or geographic movement at all, according to Canadian criminal code. The key element is exploitation. Minnesota’s trafficking law is similar and differs from the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 that defines sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act in which the act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person is under 18.
Minnesota and Canada recognize that people cannot willingly consent to being sexually prostituted by others.
Much of the trafficking is thought to be organized by criminal gangs that have found havens on reservations where remoteness, a culture of silence and distrust of authorities provide protection. According to Justice Department data, many reservations have violent crime rates more than 2.5 times higher than the national rate. As I noted in another article in the Yonder, gangs and their attendant violence and lawlessness have exploded on reservations as criminals have realized the lack of enforcement. The complex maze of jurisdictional challenges to prosecuting crimes in Indian Country has been an added incentive to such organizations.
Fortunately, on August 12 of this year, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, which will provide tribes with greater authority to prosecute crimes on reservations and hold federal authorities accountable for their efforts (or lack thereof) in investigating and prosecuting crime in Indian Country.
According to the “Shattered Hearts” report, the FBI indentified Minneapolis as one of 13 U.S. cities with a high rate of criminal activity involving commercial sexual exploitation. The Minnesota legislature developed a plan to address sexual trafficking, creating a Human Trafficking Task Force. Task force workers found that 345 American Indian girls were the victims of sexual trafficking over a three-year period and that most reported being victimized by sexual predators.
Advocates in Canada and the U.S. report that most trafficking victims have histories of being sexually assaulted. The Amnesty International report “Maze of Injustice” found that 1 in 3 Indian women would be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, the highest rate of any ethnicity. This high rate of rape contributes to the normalization and internalization of sexual victimhood, making Indian women and girls easy prey for traffickers.
“They’re lured into the lifestyle with such things as gifts, shopping trips and alcohol and drugs,” Andrew George from Nightmute village in Alaska told the Alaska Dispatch.
FBI and Anchorage Police Department investigators contacted Alaskan village leaders recently informing them that sex traffickers in Anchorage are targeting Native women and girls. Traffickers see Native runaways as easy prey. Alone in a big city for the first time and isolated from friends and family, they are seeking money and attention.
According to the Dispatch article, FBI agent, Jolene Goeden, notes that it’s hard to rescue some girls, especially from villages. They may not see themselves as victims, particularly those who have experienced sexual or domestic violence.
The “sex-trafficking world is incredibly, incredibly violent. Once that grooming process is over it turns into, ‘You owe me. I need you to do this for me one time. And then it happens over and over again,’ ” Goeden said.