While we tend to think of the world’s most vulnerable living in less developed countries, the reality is that human trafficking and sexual exploitation take place in Western countries — including the United States.
One of the populations most vulnerable to human trafficking in North America is Indigenous women. Here’s why human trafficking in Native American communities is an especially concerning issue.
Statistics on human trafficking in Native American communities
Historically, comprehensive information on human trafficking in Native American communities has not been collected. Due to the scattered nature of these communities, it’s difficult to gather accurate data.
In 2011, Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and Prostitution Research & Education funded the Garden of Truth report, authored by Melissa Farley, Nicole Matthews, Sarah Deer, Guadalupe Lopez, Christine Stark, and Eileen Hudon. This report focused on the stories of Native women working in prostitution, many of them also survivors of trafficking. We will reference their work often, as it’s foundational for understanding the complexities of this crime against Native women.
Less than 10% of the overall population at each of those sites were Indigenous, showing how disproportionately human trafficking impacts Native Americans and First Nations. There is also evidence to suggest that it similarly impacts Alaskan Natives and Hawaiian Natives.
Why are Native American women more vulnerable to human trafficking?
Native American communities are fractured
Native Americans and Alaskan Natives make up approximately 2% of the total U.S. population, but many tribes became geographically and culturally fractured during the colonization of North America. Across the country, Native people were forced off their lands in an attempt to assimilate them.
Recently, media attention has spotlighted the tragic 20th century practice in both the United States and Canada of separating Indigenous families from their children, who were sent to boarding schools specifically to be assimilated into white culture. This disrupted entire generations.
Women who come from families who were fractured by forced boarding school make up the majority of Native trafficking victims. The Garden of Truth study found this to be true of more than two thirds of the women they interviewed.
Often, boarding schools forbade children from using their native language or wearing their tribe’s clothing. Cultural practices were erased from their lives. Contact with families was extremely limited. Because of this painful history, some Native communities have found themselves geographically scattered. They live disconnected from each other, their native language, and their culture. This disconnection combined with extreme poverty contributed to the creation of multi-faceted vulnerability.
Abuse and violence
Through the interviews with survivors in the Garden of Truth study, it was discovered that:
- 79% of the women had been sexually abused as children, by an average of four perpetrators.
- 46% of the women had been in foster care, with an average of five different foster homes.
Data from the U.S. Department of Justice identifies that at least 70% of the violence commited against Native women is perpetrated by non-Native individuals.
In 2010, the presidential office even made a comment: “When one in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetimes, that is an assault on our national conscience; it is an affront to our shared humanity; it is something that we cannot allow to continue” (Administration of Barack Obama, 2010).
Four in five Native American women will experience violence in some form in their lifetime. This tragic normalization of brutality contributes to the ongoing prevalence of Native women going missing or being murdered. Often, due to the fact that tribal leaders have lacked jurisdiction to prosecute non-Natives, these cases never see justice.
This is a dynamic that traffickers use as an opportunity. The cycle of violence is perpetuated in the trafficking process, with torture occurring at a disturbing rate — even though most trafficking situations for Native women begin with someone posing as their boyfriend.
This history of disruption, discrimination, and violence toward Native women has a tremendous impact on their ability to operate as healthy individuals. Couple this widespread violence with poverty and a systematic disconnection from their cultural community, and many Native women find themselves in prostitution or sex trafficking as a result.
While the lines between prostitution and sex trafficking are complex and often blurry, of those in Minnesota interviewed in the Garden of Truth study, 39% of the Native women entered into prostitution before the age of 18, which by definition is classified as human trafficking.
Additionally, many of the women reported some form of fraud, threat, or manipulation in their experiences in the sex industry — again, indicators of sex trafficking. Often, women who appear to be prostitutes by choice are controlled or need to give a portion or most of their earnings to a pimp.
A history of oppression
The factors listed above are ways in which Natives have suffered under a long history of oppression. Native women and children “are among the most economically, socially, and politically disenfranchised groups in the United States” according to Dr. Lisa M. Poupart, a professor of First Nations Studies (The Familiar Face of Genocide: Internalized Oppression among American Indians).
Dr. Sandi Pierce, a sex trafficking researcher and Native scholar, says, “the selling of North America’s Indigenous women and children for sexual purposes has been an ongoing practice since the colonial era. There is evidence that early British surveyors and settlers viewed Native women’s sexual and reproductive freedom as proof of their ‘innate’ impurity, and that many assumed the right to kidnap, rape, and prostitute Native women and girls without consequence.”
The Native Women’s Association of Canada expands on this, asserting, “Discussing exploitation and trafficking in relation to Indigenous women necessarily means understanding the historical and ongoing colonial sexualization of Indigenous women’s bodies. Since early colonization, Indigenous women have been positioned by Western ideology as inherently violable and less valuable than non-Indigenous, non-racialized bodies.”
The Effects of Sex Trafficking on Native Women
The impact of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation among Native women is wide-reaching. The mental and emotional trauma these women suffer sends ripple effects throughout their families, their children, and their communities.
In the Garden of Truth study, 98% experienced homelessness, which can compound trauma. As a result, 65% had been diagnosed with a mental illness, including PTSD. In fact, the rates of PTSD in this group of women was similar to that of combat veterans.
In the absence of trauma-informed care, those mental wounds can make it deeply difficult for survivors to engage in supportive relationships, rediscover a sense of autonomy and meaning, or hold down safe and stable employment.
Drugs and alcohol also play a key role in the lives of Native women who find themselves caught in the sex industry. In the Garden of Truth study, they found that a majority of the women (61%) used drugs or alcohol because they needed to chemically numb themselves from the pain of working or being forced into the sex industry.
That leaves survivors dependent on drugs even long after they have left the sex industry, which creates challenges holding down stable employment and significant financial hardships. Substance abuse can also further disrupt their relationships and family supports.
Because of the inherent violence that the sex industry is rife with for Native American women, many of them are left with debilitating health problems. In a 2015 study on health impacts of trafficking in Native communities, researchers found that 84% of respondents had been physically assaulted at some point while being trafficked for sex. A staggering 72% suffered traumatic brain injuries.
Other potential health risks can include scarring, dental problems, neurological impairment, and sexually transmitted infections. Overall, 99% of the respondents had experienced at least one of these conditions. Most of these health problems last long after a survivor has left the exploitive situation, serving as a haunting reminder of their abuse.
What Native Women Need
More resources are necessary for Native women to continue finding healing and health, as individuals and as communities. Some vital forms of support include:
- Reconnection with Native traditions
- Homeless shelters
- Domestic abuse shelters
- Trauma-informed mental health counseling and support
- Legal aid
- Equitable job programs
- Increased education and training for law enforcement
- Appropriate collaboration between tribal governments and the U.S. federal government to protect the vulnerable
These are all resources that would be significantly helpful to Native and Indigenous populations. While some general resources do exist, there remains a gap where many Native women simply don’t have access to what they need.
Awareness and understanding
The injustices and violence against Native American people have largely been overlooked and invisible in North America. One of the best ways to ally with them is simply to see them — in all the complexity of their oppression and resilience. Understanding their stories, their heritage and values, and the injustices that have made them vulnerable can better equip us to prevent and respond to trafficking.
One way this can be done is through further research, such as exploring the incredible online library of publications provided through the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. Another key action step is simply bearing witness to survivor’s stories, such as Eva’s story at The Guardian.
This need was expressed best by one of the survivors quoted in Garden of Truth’s study: “Women like myself need someone they feel they can trust without being judged by how they lived their life… We need someone to understand where we came from and how we lived and that half of us were raped, beat, and made to sell our bodies. We need people with hearts.”
Interested in learning more? Learn about how human trafficking disproportionately affects ethnic minorities and indigenous persons.
If you are part of the Native American community and are in a situation of sexual violence or exploitation, you can contact the Stronghearts Native Helpline by calling 1-844-762-8483. You can also chat with them online.
You can also access tribe-specific sex trafficking resources at tribaltrafficking.org. For further support, visit the Human Trafficking Hotline’s referral directory.