Trafficking Of Native American 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.

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.

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.

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.’”

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.

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.

Part of a longer article that you can read in full at http://thecirclenews.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=329&Itemid=75



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