Trafficking of Native women is widespread


Three decades ago, the relatives of an eleven-year-old Native girl in Minnesota forced her to have sex with a man in exchange for alcohol. The story was not front-page news. It was not the subject of a feature-length film with a happy ending. No one intervened. But when she turned eighteen, the police started paying attention. She was arrested and convicted over twenty times for prostitution.  Her parents’ addiction became her own, and she entered treatment dozens of times.

At an early age, the girl became one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Native American children and women forced into prostitution in Minnesota, falling under the radar of social services, the community, and the media.

“If it was a bunch of white, blonde hair, blue-eyed girls, believe me, there would be an end to this,” said Vednita Carter, executive director of Breaking Free, a St. Paul-based nonprofit serving women involved in prostitution.

Shattered Hearts
To read the full Shattered Hearts report, see
If you are being prostituted, sexually exploited, or trafficked, there are agencies that can help you. Here are several:
•   Breaking Free: 651-645-6557
•   MN Indian Women’s Resource Center: 612-728-2000
•   MN Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition: 651-646-4800
•   Civil Society: 1-888-772-3324 (toll-free) or 651-291-8810

In September, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center became the first organization in the state to release a report about the widespread trafficking of Native women. The agency hopes its effort will draw attention and funding to Native victims of sexual exploitation.

Advocates say the report’s findings cast little doubt that the situation has already become a crisis. In a sample of 95 Native women seeking services from the resource center, 40 percent reported being the victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

Sixty percent of the women surveyed entered prostitution or pornography before the age of 18. And about one-fifth had been sexually exploited before their thirteenth birthday. When the girls become adults, the exploitation often continues. They remain in prostitution, but the law often no longer views them as victims, but as criminals.

The 126-page report, called Shattered Hearts, written by research scientist Alexandra Pierce, focuses on women who live outside of reservations. The report compiles statistics, identifies flaws in the legal system, draws parallels to the historic exploitation of Native people, and makes dozens of suggestions about how to address the problem. Pierce incorporated the Resource Center’s own studies, interviews with social service workers, and available government data.

“To me, it’s an emotional issue; it’s a financial issue; it’s a justice issue; it’s a human rights issue,” said Suzanne Koepplinger, the Resource Center’s executive director.

Although the legal system treats prostitution and trafficking differently, the report often uses the terms interchangeably, as many advocates believe that prostitution can never be considered fully consensual. The prostituted woman is the true victim of the crime, they argue.

“There’s a general acceptance that prostitution is a lifestyle choice, when it’s actually a federal crime against women,” Koepplinger said.

The report found that Native women have been disproportionally impacted by sexual exploitation. For example, Native American women make up about 25 percent of all women on probation in Hennepin County for prostitution-related offenses, according to data from 2007. But Native women represent only 2.2 percent of the county’s population.

Past treatment of Indian women

Some of the reasons for the staggering numbers are clear. Native Americans have the state’s highest rates of homelessness, poverty, and alcoholism – what many call the legacy of hundreds of years of colonialism. But the report also argues that generational trauma plays a role. White settlers repeatedly raped, tortured, and murdered Native women over hundreds of years, treating their bodies as disposable and worthless.

In one account from the 1860s, a white rancher describes a government attack on the Cheyenne: “I heard one man say that he had cut out a woman’s private parts and had them for exhibition on a stick…I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over the saddle-bows and wore them over their hats while riding in the ranks.”

Other more recent practices, including the involuntary sterilization of Native women and the Indian Adoption Project (which removed Native children from their homes), added to the collective trauma, the report says.

“There’s been so much violence and destruction of families because of colonization,” said Nicole Matthews, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition.

In Minnesota, advocates say that Native women have been prostituted onto ships in the Duluth harbor for generations, although local law enforcement say that they have not noticed any trafficking since harbor security was ramped up after 9/11.

“Girls have conversations with their mothers about their time, when the mothers were working on the boats,” one advocate said during a round-table discussion conducted as part of the report. “Many of the girls were conceived out of working on the boats.”

These historical experiences leave Native women psychologically vulnerable to exploitation, the report says.  Once women enter into prostitution, they are less likely to ask for help, as violence against women may seem normal.

Sexual exploitation in the Native community  

Advocates say that many Native communities have also normalized sexual exploitation. Although data is limited, the fact that Native women are often exploited in childhood suggests that Native men play a significant role in their abuse. In many close-knit Native communities, women may have difficulty speaking out.

“It’s a very difficult issue because it’s a very painful issue,” Koepplinger said. “But not talking about it hasn’t helped us.”

An advocate who was interviewed anonymously as part of the report said that when she has tried to talk about sexual violence with members of her Native community, “Some of the elders don’t appreciate that.”

Another participants agreed, saying, “Oh, I know, I know. I was ‘that nasty girl who talks nasty.'”

Criminalization of victims

If the girls don’t find help before they turn eighteen, the legal system takes over, often criminalizes their abuse, and fails to effectively stop sex trafficking, advocates say. But disagreement exists among both advocates and law enforcement about the best intervention methods.

“Police get a hold of them first,” said Linda Miller, executive director of Civil Society, a non-profit that provides legal and other assistance to trafficking victims.  “They’ve declared that they’re not going to look beneath the surface.”

But St. Paul Police spokesperson Paul Schnell points to the federally funded Gerald D. Vick Human Trafficking Task Force, a police-led effort to coordinate services for victims of trafficking. The police department trains officers to recognize signs of human trafficking when they approach criminal situations.

However, many women are distrustful of law enforcement, and Schnell acknowledges that police officers frequently arrest women engaged in prostitution.

“In the moment, a case may become a case, ” he said. “But over the course of time and doing that investigation via prosecution or defense counsel, there are different places where there can be interventions to address the trafficking issues.”

Carter, of Breaking Free, said that St. Paul police officers have been increasingly receptive to treating prostitutes as victims. More police officers are bringing women directly to Breaking Free instead of jail, she said.

Nonetheless, arrests continue, and advocates say that a prostitution conviction – or even an arrest – can prevent a woman from ever having a decent job or housing.

“Not many women want to spend the rest of their lives saying that they engaged in prostitution,” Miller said.

Trafficking laws in Minnesota
Minnesota law does provide some additional legal protection to victims of sex trafficking. While the federal definition of trafficking requires that traffickers use “force, fraud, or coercion,” state laws say that a person can never consent to being sexually exploited. Under state law, anyone who had been prostituted by others is considered a trafficking victim.

In May 2009, the Minnesota legislature unanimously passed an amendment to the state’s sex trafficking law. The amendment allows prosecutors to give sex traffickers higher penalties when the offender repeatedly traffics victims into prostitution, where bodily harm is inflicted, where an individual is held more than 180 days, or where more than one victim is involved. The amendment also categorizes sex trafficking as a “crime of violence,” which prohibits traffickers from owning firearms.

As of late October, prosecutors have not convicted any traffickers under the amended bill. Advocates say the lack of prosecution is not surprising. It’s a lot easier to arrest the prostitute on the street than investigate what could be a larger, more organized business, they say.

But sometimes, despite massive investigative efforts, trafficking cases fall apart.  Deputy Chief John Beyer, of the Duluth Police Department, said that investigators spent hundreds of hours working on a case in 2000, involving two Native girls being trafficked onto boats in the Duluth harbor. The officers even obtained video footage that showed the girls going onto the boats.

Beyer said the case fell apart when the girls stopped cooperating with law enforcement’s efforts to prosecute the case. “That was really frustrating for all of us” he said. “We really wanted to go after those guys.”

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner says her office has not seen any cases involving the trafficking of Native women in recent years. However, she says that the lack of cases does not mean that trafficking does not exist, but that women face barriers to reporting their abuse.

“In my mind as a prosecutor, the barrier is not the language of the statutes,” she said. “The real barrier is the lack of reports and the lack of awareness by system’s personnel,” including health care providers and teachers.

Punishing the victims

Many advocates say that law enforcement needs to address not only the traffickers, but also the individual men who pay for sex. Carter, of Breaking Free, said she believes that the men should receive felony convictions as a deterrent.

“We believe it’s about supply and demand,” she said. “And there’s so much focus on the supply, which is the women. The demand is the men who buy them. That’s what keeps prostitution thriving is the demand.”

Breaking Free runs a monthly program for men convicted of soliciting a prostitute, and Carter says the program has had some success. Out of about 400 male participants, only a handful have been re-arrested. But she cautioned that this might not reflect the true reality. Men may just work harder to avoid detection, she said.

On the victim’s side, advocates say that women have little incentive to come forward and share their stories. Few services exist for victims of trafficking. The situation is often parallel to that of domestic violence victims. Without adequate support, leaving the situation could place women at greater risk of violence, including murder, advocates say.

Programs like Breaking Free, Women of Nations, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth, and others are trying to address the problem, but advocates say that a lack of funding for housing prevents many women from coming forward.

“Why would we want to put a woman through that if nothing’s going to happen?” said Matthews. “You’re kind of opening the wound without doing anything about it.”

The Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center runs an emergency shelter program for women, but they had to turn away 50 women and children last year. About 150 women are on the agency’s waiting list for supportive housing.

The report also recommends other measures, including: raising awareness of the problem, increasing criminal penalties for purchasers of sexual services, training health care workers and others to identify signs of sex trafficking, and providing job opportunities for victims of prostitution.

Although advocates are quick to point out that sexual exploitation is not unique to Native communities, they say that Native people need to take some responsibility for addressing the situation. The first step, they say, is ending the silence that exists in many close-knit Native communities.

“If enough people in the community say this is a problem, then we can get something done,” Koepplinger said.

Advocates emphasize that Native people can also draw on specific cultural strengths to confront the problem. For example, the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth holds traditional full-moon ceremonies every month to help women begin to heal and recover from their experiences.

“It’s important to provide a safe space where they can feel comfortable saying that I don’t want this to happen to my daughter,” said Sherry Sanchez-Tibbets, the agency’s executive director.

Meanwhile, advocates say they hope that agencies will collect more data, which could be used to secure badly needed funding.

As part of this initiative, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition recently began a project to interview Native victims to learn more about their struggles, and to ask the women for input about what services would be useful.

The agency hopes to interview 100 women by February, and intends to hold a community feast to celebrate the project. Plans are also in the works to create a quilt in honor of the women and to publicize the problem.

Koepplinger stresses that her agency’s report is just the first step to identify and begin to more fully address the problem. “I’m not naive enough to think we can do this in the next two years, but we have to start somewhere,” she said.

In the meantime, every day Native woman are being prostituted in Minnesota. The story of the woman who was sold into prostitution at age eleven demonstrates the challenges of intervention.

The woman did not connect with social services until her mid-40s. By that time, she was entrenched in a cycle of violence. Civil Society has provided her with emergency help several times over the past few years, but she faces limited options.

Right now, she is once again in treatment for alcoholism, and Miller, of Civil Society, said she still hopes the woman can create a healthy life for herself. But, she added, “Her story, and the other victims we see, are just the tip of the iceberg.”