A. Who Is Being Trafficked
The following sections describe the main characteristics of the Native American women and girls who are being trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation. While many of these characteristics are shared by all domestic trafficking victims, they come together in a perfect storm that disproportionately impacts Native American communities, rendering Native women and girls particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking.
On average, prostituted American Indian women enter prostitution as minors, many as young as twelve or thirteen, and some even younger. The study conducted by MIWRC for the Shattered Hearts report found that 63% of clients who reported commercial sexual exploitation entered prostitution or pornography before turning eighteen. Canadian studies from the 1990's corroborate this finding, reporting the average age of Aboriginal youth entering prostitution as fourteen. Under federal and state laws, prostituted persons under age eighteen are automatically considered sex trafficking victims.
2. Histories of Sexual and Physical Abuse
In addition, American Indian women and girls trafficked into prostitution previously experienced sexual and physical abuse as children and adults at alarming rates. Service providers characterize childhood sexual abuse as the key experience “setting the stage for Native girls' entry into the sex trade.” Of the prostituted Native women interviewed for Garden of Truth, 79% had been sexually abused as children, by an average of four men. Likewise, a Canadian study of 150 trafficked Aboriginal youth found that 80% had been physically, sexually, emotionally, or verbally abused in their homes. This correlation is disconcerting given DOJ data showing that American Indian women are over 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the United States generally. More than one in three will be raped in their lifetime, usually by a non-Native individual; the figure for the general U.S. population is less than one in five.
Physical abuse and neglect are also experienced at much higher rates in American Indian communities and among trafficked women and girls in particular. In 2008, the rate of American Indian child maltreatment reports in Minnesota was more than six times the proportion of Indian children in the population. The resulting high rate of Native children in foster care (in Minnesota, 9% of children in foster care are American Indian even though they represent only 1% of the state's child population) is strongly related to trafficking. Garden of Truth found that 46% of the prostituted women interviewed had been in foster care, many suffering sexual abuse by foster parents or aging out of the system with no support. A Canadian study similarly found 41% of Aboriginal prostituted youth had experienced neglect, compared to 5% of non-Aboriginal youth.
Advocates in Minnesota, Alaska, and nationally report that Native women and girls exposed to sexual or domestic violence either directly or as witnesses normalize this behavior to the point where they do not see themselves as victims and cannot recognize their own sexual exploitation. In addition, many Native girls are exposed to prostitution as a “career option” at a very young age. MIWRC reported that almost half of the ninety-five women screened had a friend in prostitution, and over one-fourth had a family member in prostitution. The Garden of Truth found that 57% had family involved in prostitution. This exposure leads Native girls to view sexual exploitation as a “fact of life” greatly increasing their chance of being pressured into the sex trade and decreasing their chance of exiting it. Canadian studies report that Native youth find no harm in being paid for sex “since it was taken for free when they were still at home.”
3. Drug and Alcohol Abuse
A history of family and personal drug and alcohol abuse is another primary characteristic of trafficked American Indian women and girls. American and Canadian studies identify parental substance abuse as “a primary factor in the physical and sexual abuse of Native youth, Native youth's decision to run away from home, and their resulting recruitment for prostitution.” In the 2007 Minnesota Student Survey, American Indian girls reported problematic alcohol and drug use by a family member at more than double the rate of girls in the general population.
Studies also find a high level of personal drug use among prostituted American Indian women. Minnesota advocates report that most often Native women have a drug or alcohol addiction prior to entering the sex trade, which is then exploited by a pimp with access to drugs to force the woman into prostitution. Pimps will also provide Native women with free drugs, get them addicted, and then begin prostituting them. A Canadian study found that Aboriginal prostitutes were twice as likely to use drugs and a significant proportion remain in the sex trade to maintain a drug habit.
This risk factor is disproportionately prevalent in American Indian communities. Among 12th grade Native girls in Minnesota, 20-35% reported at least one indicator of a substance abuse problem, over twice the proportion of girls in the general population. The high rate of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) among Native Americans (studies show rates that are many times higher than the rates for whites) is also strongly correlated with sex trafficking. Research of individuals with FASD found that over 50% of such individuals have been sexually victimized and are especially vulnerable to pimps offering free drugs.
Many American Indian women and girls trafficked into prostitution ran away from home and were homeless as a result of abuse, neglect, family substance abuse, or lack of opportunity on impoverished reservations. Suzanne Koepplinger, Executive Director of MIWRC, writes that she sees high numbers of young Native females who are homeless or runaway youth who report exchanging sex for shelter, food, or drugs--what is known as “survival sex.” Local police and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents in Anchorage, Alaska, report seeing increasing numbers of rural Alaska Native girls and women running away from their families and villages for Anchorage in search of better opportunities “only to be lured into prostitution by pimps who see young Native runaways as especially easy prey.”
Running away and homelessness are common in American Indian communities. The 2007 Minnesota Student Survey found that 27% of American Indian 12th grade girls reported having run away at least once in the previous year versus 8% of all girls. American Indians also represent 28% of unaccompanied homeless youth in rural Minnesota and 12% in Minneapolis/St. Paul, although they are only 2% of Minnesota's youth population. Given national statistics estimating that once in the street, one third of runaway children will have some involvement with prostitution or pornography, American Indian women and girls are at a much higher risk of becoming sex trafficking victims.
5. Generational Trauma
Arguably the defining characteristic of American Indian sex trafficking is the unique generational trauma from which victims suffer. From the first colonizers to present-day pimps, generations of American Indian women and girls have been repeatedly and forcefully exploited. European colonizers used Native women for their own sexual fulfillment, justifying their acts on their belief that Native women, whose sexual autonomy was respected within tribes, were promiscuous, depraved, and unable to be controlled by Native men. Native women captured in the wars between colonizers and tribes were frequently used for sex and labor or sold for profit.
During westward expansion, sexual abuse by traders and settlers occurred regularly with little or no legal intervention; indeed, the legal system did not consider rape of a Native woman to be rape. In the 1850's in California, Native women were “routinely captured and either held as concubines by their kidnappers or sold to other white men for their personal use.” U.S. troops sent to protect settlers raped, murdered, and sexually mutilated Native women with impunity. Mass killings of American Indians during this period meant that “[o]ral traditions for spiritual healing often died with the elders;” many of the traditions that survived were outlawed by the U.S. government in 1881, weakening tribal nations and hindering survivors' ability to grieve.
Sexual assault by military forces during forced migrations to reservations was also commonplace. Once on reservations, soldiers regularly exploited American Indians' dependency on them for food, clothing, and shelter to extract sexual ‘favors' from Native women. As the forced migrations ended in the late 1800's, the government began removing Native children to boarding schools, leaving Native communities no time to address their collective trauma. In the schools, Native children suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of instructors and were threatened to never speak of the abuse--threats that became known as the “Don't Talk Rule”.
Urban relocation programs, which began in 1940, once again relocated American Indians, but this time from reservations to cities with promises of plentiful jobs and transition assistance. The government's failure to provide this support left American Indians unemployed at eight to ten times the national average and isolated from the support of their tribes--“the perfect opportunity for pimps and predators to gain a foothold in the lives of Native people.” The forced sterilization and child removal policies of the 1960s and 1970s continued government exploitation of Native women, leaving “Native people vulnerable to victimization ... [and] ensur[ing] that yet another generation of Native women would be exposed to sexual abuse.”
This history of exploitation has led to what is known as “generational trauma,” as explained in Shattered Hearts:
U.S. government actions such as extermination policies, religious persecution, forced migration to Indian reservations, and systematic removal of Native children to boarding schools caused repeated exposure to trauma, which impeded a natural grieving process. Each time, past and current trauma were transferred to the next generation along with the unresolved grief in what has been termed generational trauma or historical trauma.
According to Koepplinger and other advocates and researchers, generational trauma leaves “entire communities unable to internalize a healthy sense of self” and protect themselves against sexual exploitation.
Studies in Canada and the United States find that this deeply pervasive generational trauma leads many American Indian families and communities to turn at high rates to alcohol, drugs, violence, and crime “as they try to make sense of their own hopelessness.” It has also been linked to the disproportionately high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among American Indian women and the extreme emotional vulnerability of many Native girls. These disparities, as discussed above, open the door to sex traffickers.
The traumatic legacy of sexual exploitation of American Indian women also deeply affects their ability to exit sex trafficking. In Amnesty International's report, Maze of Injustice, indigenous women described how they “experience contemporary sexual violence as a legacy of impunity for past atrocities.” As a result, many Native victims do not report such crimes, believing no one will investigate. They also are reluctant to seek help out of fear of being blamed, criticized, or even physically hurt by people in their communities for whom generational trauma has normalized sexual exploitation and the culture of silence. Tribal elders, community leaders, and Native victim advocates have spoken out about sex trafficking, but they report that the normalcy of sexual exploitation makes it difficult to motivate a community-wide response to the crime. This combination of reluctance, indifference, and vulnerability has allowed traffickers to get a foothold in American Indian communities.