Modern Day Slavery: Human Sex Trafficking Among Native American Women

This is the essay I did as a nonfiction piece not a creative nonfiction piece.

Human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry, and though it affects nearly every community across our nation, it is commonplace here in the US and in Indian Country.  According to Lisa Brunner, Executive Director and CEO Sacred Spirits First Nations Coalition, who testified in front of Congress, “Native women experience violent victimization at a higher rate than any other US population.  More than 1 in 3 Native American and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetime; more than 6 in 10 will be physically assaulted. Native women are murdered at more than ten times the national average” (Brunner 2016).  According to a new report published in May 2016 from the National Institute of Justice, “Among American Indian and Alaska Native women, 56.1 percent have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime and 14.4 percent have experienced it in the past year. Among American Indian and Alaska Native victims, 96 percent of women and 89 percent of men have experienced sexual violence by an interracial perpetrator” (Research Report p 11).

Prior to colonial contact, violence against Native women was very rare.  In fact, women were acknowledged to be sacred and revered members of their communities. However, the long-term impacts of government actions which caused widespread poverty, low educational attainment, high rates of community and interpersonal violence, high rates of alcohol-related deaths and suicide, poor physical health, and corroded family and community relations.  The U.S. government outlawed gatherings for ceremonies and it wasn’t until 1978 that American Indians were allowed to fully practice their traditional religions. All of which the U.S. government has never acknowledged, never apologized for, or attempted to compensate for its treatment of American Indians.

From the mid-1500s when the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto wrote in his journal how he and his men had captured Appalachee women in Florida “for their foul use and lewdness” (Galley 2002).  The fact that Native women would have sex with colonist that were connected to trade made them out to be tainted and mercenary (Fischer 2002). Because of these beliefs, Native women were raped and harassed by English surveying teams and the framework was set to justify the sexual exploitation of American Indian women who colonist believed to be sexually loose, mercenary and immoral having no regard for the norms of decent society. The U.S. Army, as immigrants moved westward, not only killed American Indian men in battle, but also slaughtered entire encampments of women, elders and children.  Referred to as “breeders”, American Indian women were raped, murdered, and sexually mutilated.

The atrocities continued throughout the generations.  In the 1850s, the U.S. government established and relocated American Indians to reservations for assimilation.  In 1879, the Bureau of Indian Affairs opened Carlisle Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which became the model for government-funded, Christian-oriented Indian boarding schools.  In its 39 years of operation, approximately 12,000 American Indian children attended (Anderson 2000).  According to the Dawes Allotment Acct in 1887, each reservations was broken up into 160 acre parcels which was allotted to individual heads of family, and it allowed the government to sell any unallotted land which resulted in 17 million acres of Indian land sold to companies or white men.  From 1950 to the 1970s, the U.S. government performed involuntary sterilization of Native women, approved of tribal termination and urban relocation efforts, and enforced large scale efforts into adopting Native children into white families.

What does all this have to do with today’s sex trafficking of Native American women?  Plenty.  History set the stage to what can be “described as “a perfect storm” of victimization, oppression, and poverty that makes Native American women vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation” (Shattered Hearts Report 2009).  According to the Trafficking Victim Protection Act (2002), “Trafficking involves sexual exploitation of persons, predominately women and girls, involving activities related to prostitution, pornography, sex tourism, and other commercial sexual services.  Victims are often forced through physical violence to engage in sex acts or perform slavery-like labor.  Such force includes rape and other forms of sexual abuse, torture, starvation, imprisonment, threats, psychological abuse, and coercion” (22). Most of these victims were sexually abused as kids.  Some young women are coerced into believing they are providing for their families.  All are poverty stricken and feel this is their only “career” choice.

Almost all the stories sound alike.  In the city of Duluth, a port city in Minnesota, many Native women, mothers and daughters alike, are driven into prostitution by poverty and homelessness.  Generations of Native women have sold themselves in order to survive.  There has been a large increase in the number of prostitutes since 2000, especially those who are underage.  Criminals know they are less likely to be arrested or prosecuted for trafficking and the overhead is far less than that required for selling drugs.  The internet has increased the demand for prostitutes with escort services, both online and by phone, which provides a somewhat legal means for prostitutes and buyers to connect.  The internet also aids the movement and coordination of prostitution.  Pimps coordinate meet-ups between the women and buyers at rural bars and strip clubs.  The police noted it seems to be growing in organization and sophistication (Pember 2012).

Between the significant lack of federal or state funding for helping domestically trafficked or prostituted women, and the distrust of law enforcement among Native girls and women many traffickers suffer no real consequences even if they agree to testify.  Lieutenant Scott Drewlo of the Duluth police notes, “As an example, “the big boat case” of 2000, in which a 14-year-old Native girl was sold to the crew of a ship by a gang in Duluth. According to Drewlo, organized crime in the form of gangs has played a large role in trafficking girls in and around Duluth for years. The girl was locked in a cabin on the boat for days while the crew raped her repeatedly. She managed to escape when the ship was in port in Cleveland and made her way back to Duluth, where she contacted police. In the end, however, she was too frightened to testify and disappeared. We have no way of knowing how many times this sort of thing has happened,” he says (Pember 2012).

Vednita Carter, founder of Breaking Free, a Minneapolis-based non-profit dedicated to helping women escape prostitution says “true choice is the ability to change your mind and leave a situation, however, you can’t just walk away from prostitution.  Once you’ve been involved so many things have happened that prevent you from leaving. I like to call it New Age Slavery.  At some point, their spirits fall down and they see that they are indeed victims” (2)  She claims initially some glamorize the life and speak fondly of the attention from men, wearing fancy clothes, going out to eat, staying in nice hotels.  “I tell them that’s not prostitution.  I ask them how they felt when a stranger ordered them to their knees and demanded they open their mouths. Sometimes they being to cry,” Carter said.  It is then they come to realize they’ve been hurt, things have happened to them that they never expected to happen.  A man can do anything he wants to a prostitute; “the women who come to us are broken” said Carter.

Now that sex trafficking is beginning to get the attention of federal, state, and tribal health and social service agencies, they are struggling to create meaningful ways to serve sex trafficking victims. The stringent barriers created though are causing problems.  Some services are requiring adult victims to cooperate with law enforcement to receive services.  Because some victims won’t cooperate, they are turned away.  Minors, on the other hand, are not required to work with law enforcement, but are encouraged to do so.  The first and only shelter designated to serve Native American sex trafficking victims has recently been funded by the Department of Justice.  Located on the Crow Creek Reservation, Pathfinders, as it’s called, is due to open later this year and will offer long-term housing for survivors as well as mental health, job training, and spiritual support services.

The question arises, would sex trafficking decrease if prostitution was made legal? The Nordic Model, also known as the Sex Buyer Law, decriminalizes all those who are prostituted, provides support services to help them exit, and makes buying people for sex a criminal offense, in order to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking.  It was pioneered in Sweden after extensive research and has been adopted by countries such as Canada, Norway, Australia, and New Zealand. The UK is currently looking into implementing the Nordic Model.  Has it worked? According to the countries that have criminalized sex buyers, such as Sweden, have seen a significant drop in sex trafficking per capita than Denmark and Germany where buying sex is legal.  Street prostitution has halved and the Swedish government determined that this is not because prostitution has moved inside.

Native American women experience violence, rape, physical assault, and murder in the United States at a higher rate than any other population.  This outrage alone should make people stand up and take notice. Prior to colonization, violence against Native American women was rare, however the long-term impacts of government actions caused widespread poverty, high rates of alcoholism and drug use, and low educational attainment throughout the generations of the Indian nations.  History set the stage for the perfect storm and Native American women became vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation.  Because of poverty and homelessness, mothers and daughters alike have turned to prostitution in order to survive.  Thanks to the dedication of many organizations like “Breaking Free” and funding from the Justice Department, giving these women a choice to end their life of prostitution with shelter, education, job training, and spiritual support, there may be hope for some of these women.  Gaining trust in law enforcement and providing safe access to those who decide to go after their perpetrators remains a huge problem in helping victims.  Some think adopting the Nordic Model will decrease sex trafficking everywhere. Awareness is key to the start of the solution.  We must, as a nation, end poverty; we must, as a nation, end homelessness; we must, as a nation, embrace our brothers and sisters with compassion and understanding. For without our help, this crime on women will never go away.


Anderson S, (2000). On sacred ground: commemorating survival and loss at the Carlisle Indian School, Central Pennsylvania Magazine (May edition).

Brunner, Lisa (2016). Executive Director and CEO Sacred Spirits First Nations Coalition. Personal Interview. 16 Sept. 2016. Print.

Carter, Vednita. (2015). Founder and President of Breaking Free

Fischer K, (2002). Suspect relations: Sex, race, and resistance in colonial North Carolina, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 56

Gallay A, (2002). The Indian slave trade: The rise of the English empire in the American South, 1670-1717. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 34.

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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s