Modern Day Slavery: Human Sex Trafficking Among Native American Women


I can remember as a young girl, I wanted to go to college and become a teacher.  However, I didn’t just want to teach in a regular school.  I wanted to live and teach on an Indian Reservation.  I don’t know where this came from but my empathy for the Native American has always been with me.  My mother, who is part Native American, was put in a home when she was only seven.  Her mother and father were both alcoholics as was her grandmother.  The three of them would get rip roaring drunk, leaving my mother and her three brothers to fend for themselves up in the hills of Altoona, PA.  They hunted squirrel for food, and often times did not have a warm coat to wear in the winter.  My grandfather worked deep in the bowels of the earth shoveling coal.  One bitter cold winter day he came home to find all four children out on the front porch of their tiny shack they called home.  My great grandmother and grandmother were entertaining men inside and the children had gotten in the way.  It was then he decided it was time to think of the kids and he put them in a Catholic charity home.

All four children were separated and it wasn’t until they became adults did they reconnect with each other.  Their life was extremely hard growing up in the Catholic orphanage.  The nuns were cruel and because they were half breeds, it entitled them to an even crueler lifestyle.  They were beaten on a regular basis, had their heads dipped in scalding hot water, and their bodies scrubbed down with stiff bristled scrub brushes.  They became slaves to the nuns, mopping floors, cleaning toilets with toothbrushes, and endless amounts of laundry.  There was no time to play or to even own toys, a doll for my mother or some toy trucks for her brothers.  Life was hard.  They lived in poverty and hopelessness.   My mother often wonders where her life would have gone if she had not been adopted out at the age of fifteen to her father’s sister.  It became quite evident shortly after moving into her new home the reason she was taken out of the Catholic orphanage.  She became their slave.  Not a sex slave but one who had to take care of the household, not just cleaning but cooking.  She went to school but when they told her she would have to earn money to wear a bra or to buy Kotex for herself, she dropped out of the ninth grade.  She got a job working at a local creamery, and this is where she met my father, a handsome Italian man who wore an Airforce uniform.  They knew each other two months when my father proposed, offering her a better life in New York.  She took it.

When I first came across an article about Native American women and sex trafficking, it wrenched my stomach. The more research I did on it, the more disturbed I became.  This problem has existed since the 1500s, when the Europeans came over and drove the American Indian off their lands.  They pillaged and raped.  They captured and enslaved.  They massacred.  I couldn’t believe it was still going on today in every aspect.  My bubble burst.  A friend of mine works with Dakota youth on an Indian reservation and I became involved in helping them raise money for their children and their schools.  However, I was shocked to learn the true statistics of what happens to their young children, especially young girls, in the 21st century.  This is when I met Lisa Brunner.

Lisa Brunner has been an active advocate in the sex trafficking of Native American women for many years.  She lives on a reservation in the Dakotas.  She is educated and wants to end the violence perpetrated against her sisters.  The young girls on her reservation look up to her and see her as a role model.  Traveling all over the world to meet with other advocates and government officials discussing ways to end the violence against Native American women, Lisa, along with her seventeen year old son, found themselves in Oslo, Norway at a summit hearing this past summer discussing the success of the Nordic Model. The Nordic Model, also known as the Sex Buyer Law, decriminalizes all those who are prostituted and makes buying people for sex a criminal offence.  The Nordic Model has been implemented by Sweden, Norway, Australia, Canada, and soon New Zealand.  “As a Native American woman, I normally do not feel safe traveling alone so I bring my seventeen year old son with me.  One day, after the summit talks, we decided to take in some sights in the city of Oslo.  We found ourselves in a little town square with cobblestone streets and many outdoor cafés.  Walking by one of the cafes, my son and I had noticed three large men sitting outside, two black men and one white man. As we approached, I could feel their eyes devouring every part of my body, making me very uncomfortable.  We decided to go to a different café across from where these men were sitting.  While enjoying our lunch, a young girl, from Nigeria I think, was walking with her mother and older sister. I could tell they were enjoying each other’s company as well as the beautiful weather.  They were all engaged in a conversation, laughing and smiling as they walked along the cobblestones.  It didn’t take long for one of the black men to get up from his seat and walk over to the young girl who looked to be around fourteen.  As he joined the three of them, his attention was on the young girl and I noticed he was rubbing his hand up and down her back.  Not only did my stomach churn while watching this brazen act, but I began to feel nauseous. Her body language clearly displaying she was not comfortable with this man touching her. I could see the fear in her facial expression.  I overhead him say to her, “Are you for sale?”  Pulling away from him, reaching for her mother, she vehemently told him she was not for sale, all three scurried as fast as they could out of the area.  Walking back to his friends, laughing, I overheard him telling them, I guess she’s not for sale.  I, myself, was visibly shaken by witnessing this encounter as was my son.  He told me then and there, I was not to go anywhere without him”.

According to Lisa, “More than 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped, more than 6 in 10 will be physically assaulted and Native women will be murdered at a rate of ten times more than the national average.”  Native Americans have the highest dropout rate from high school.  They have the highest homeless, runaway and thrown away youth in shelters than any other group nationwide as well as the highest percent of children involved in the welfare system.  Most of these young girls have been sexually assaulted/abused from someone in their family and the majority are either drug users or become drug addicted.  Many believe it is a “career choice” for them because their mother or grandmother were prostitutes.  And the biggest cause of all this, says Lisa, is poverty and history.

Native women in Duluth, Minnesota are extremely vulnerable to being lured into prostitution.  Generations of them have sold themselves to survive.  This story, in particular, from Indian Country Today by Mary Annette Pember is a powerful one about three generations of Native women who have sold themselves out to prostitution in order to survive.  Mary and her mother Ruth are just two Native American women who have survived the life of a “boat whore”. And yet, the citizens of Duluth, fearful if they talk about it and oftentimes feel it might infect them somehow if they do talk about it, sweep it under the carpet and say “boys will be boys”.  “The story of the boat whore has been like a queer kind of natural disaster that visits destruction on the powerless yet holds them responsible” (Pember 2012).

The story of Mary starts from her birth.  She was one of 21 children conceived through her mother’s liaisons with seamen.  Her exposure to the “life” was an accident.  She was 15, broke and homeless, standing on the street with a girlfriend when a Pakistani man approached them.  He invited the girls on board his boat, and thus began her life on the boats.  She would meet seamen in Duluth and accompany them back to their ships, where she would have sex with them and other crew members in exchange for food, money, drinks, and a place to stay.  Most times she stayed on the ships as they sailed from port to port.  “Life on the boats was a nonstop party”.  Mary claims the seamen treated her better than her white foster parents.  However, things changed after 9/11 and Mary found herself being pimped out by an older white woman and her husband who owned a bar.  She says she drank all the time and took care of the bar’s customers in exchange for food, lodging, child care, and alcohol.  She desperately wanted out of the life of prostitution and it wasn’t until she got very sick and was put into a nursing home that her time as a prostitute ended.

Mary is now 51 and lives in a small but comfortable house overlooking the bright, clear waters of Lake Superior.  Advocates say that Mary’s ability to normalize her life as a child prostitute is common among Native girls who have been frequently exposed to sexual abuse and violence. Research done in a report by Shattered Hearts found that “Native girls and women who exchange sex for food and shelter don’t consider the acts to be prostitution” (Shattered Hearts 22). They are simply doing what they have to do to stay alive, engaging in survival sex.  But Mary worries about her daughter, who at the age of 14 began her life with a pimp so she could have nice clothes to wear.  No matter what she tells her daughter, her answer is “look at you – you did the same thing!” Mary has gone from child prostitute, to survivor, to advocate.  Today, Mary focuses her time on spreading the word about the dangers of sex trafficking, she says, “You know, for a long time I didn’t care about anything, but now I’m getting my groove back”

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to my mother if she had not met my father when she did.  Would she have turned to prostitution eventually?  According to the stats, it’s quite possible.  She could be considered a throw away youth, she endured years of physical and emotional abuse, she dropped out of school in ninth grade, and she lived in poverty.  When she was adopted, it was only to take care of an aging aunt and uncle.  For me, growing up and listening to the horrific details of my mother’s young life has caused me to empathize with Native American women.  After speaking with Lisa, it has lit a fire in my belly to educate everyone I can about this ever troubling problem.  Do I think the Nordic Model would work here?  I don’t know.  Like Sweden, much research will need to go into such a program before implementing it in the United States.  We may not be able to change history, but we can change the poverty status of all the Native American Indian reservations.

Works Cited

Brunner, Lisa. Personal interview. 13 Sept. 2016

Pember, Mary Annette. (2012). “Native Girls are being Exploited and Destroyed at an Alarming Rate”. Indian Country Today Media Network. 16 August 2012. Web.

 “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of American Indian Women and Girls in Minnesota”. Shattered Hearts. Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. August 2009.

Picture: Port of Duluth. Indian Country Today Media Network. 16 August 2012. Web.

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