January 22, 2018

In the United States, January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. In support of this occasion, the Human Trafficking Search weekly blog seeks to examine areas of the human trafficking crisis that do not typically make the headlines. This week, it focuses on the disproportionate impact of human trafficking on Native American communities.

Native Americans are victimized by human trafficking at rates higher than that of the general population. Though statistics are few and far between, testimony from experts, activists, and tribal leaders – as well as independent investigations – have revealed a disproportionate impact. In a study conducted at four sites in the U.S. and Canada, “an average of 40 percent of women involved in sex trafficking identified as an AI/AN or First Nations,” yet Native women represent 10 percent or less of the general population in the studied communities. Lisa Brunner of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, summarized the problem to Congress in 2013 as such:

“Native women experience violent victimization at a higher rate than any other U.S. population. Congressional findings are that Native American and Alaska Native women are raped 34.1%, more than 1 in 3, will be raped in their lifetime, 64%, more than 6 in 10, will be physically assaulted. Native women are stalked more than twice the rate of other women. Native women are murdered at more than ten times the national average. Non-Indians commit 88% of violent crimes against Native women. Given the above statistical data and the historical roots of violence against Native women, the level of human trafficking given the sparse data collected can only equate to the current epidemic levels we face within our tribal communities and Nations.”

Though sex trafficking is the primary concern of both Tribal Nations and the U.S. Government, it is believed that labor trafficking and exploitation occurs as well, with the victims primarily men. Additionally, there have been a number of allegations of trafficking Native babies for adoption, most notably a 2013 Supreme Court case Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl.

Why is human trafficking more prevalent among Native populations? 

Native Americans are considered a vulnerable population. Statistics from the 2010 U.S. Census, National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, and GAO Foster Care report illustrate that Native Americans experience higher levels of poverty, rape, and entry into the foster system – all risk factors for trafficking. The proliferation of the fracking industry also contributed to a rise in sex trafficking of Native girls and women as “man camps” were established in remote areas of Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, creating a high-demand for sex in an environment rampant with drugs, alcohol, and limited supervision. While there was widespread media coverage of the rise of sex trafficking in the Bakken, discussion of its impact on Native girls and women was limited. Cindy McCain, co-Chair of the Arizona Human Trafficking Council and wife of Senator John McCain, argues that “Native Americans are largely overlooked as victims,” further compounding the issue and reinforcing the belief among tribal communities that the U.S. government provides little protection and support. Additionally, some believe the presence of casinos on tribal lands contributes to the demand for sex trafficking; McCain has stated that she has “witnessed with my own eyes six little girls lined up against a wall in a casino outside of Phoenix on display for customers.”

The prevalence of sex trafficking of Native Americans is not solely based on the multiple risk factors associated with the community; it is, in many ways, a continuation of the marginalization of Native populations in the United States. Native women have been fetishized, bought, sold, and traded since initial European colonization of the American continent. The trauma experienced by Tribal Nations at the hands of the U.S. government has contributed to high levels of poverty and substance abuse, as well as isolation and distrust of authority that can both increase the likelihood of trafficking and complicate the legal response.

There are a number of challenges to addressing human trafficking in tribal communities that are unique to the Native American experience. As with all human trafficking, the covert nature of the crime makes statistics difficult to ascertain. This is further complicated by the lack of disaggregated data, which limits agencies from identifying the magnitude of the issue, “of the four federal agencies that handle human-trafficking cases, only one records the race or ethnicity of the victim.” There are also overlapping jurisdictional issues between tribal, state, and federal governments that allow perpetrators to slip through the cracks and creates gaps in communication between agencies. For instance, non-Native Americans cannot be arrested or prosecuted by tribes – instead they fall under federal jurisdiction – allowing non-Native traffickers to operate with little risk. A 2012 UN Report estimates that almost 80 percent of rapes of Native women occur at the hands of non-Native men, highlighting this dangerous gap in enforcement. Support services for at-risk individuals and survivors are also limited for Native American girls and women due to a lack of resources. For example, a 2016 survey identified a large gap in access to services; over two-thirds of the 650 tribal lands reviewed experienced a significant dearth of access to sexual assault examiners and sexual assault response team programs, while 381 reported no service coverage within an hour’s driving distance.

Combatting Trafficking of Native Americans

In recent years, human trafficking of Native Americans has received increased attention by both federal and tribal governments. Tribal Nations – such the Navajo Nation – have begun implementing anti-trafficking laws, raising awareness in their communities, and training initiatives. The State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report highlights a number of actions undertaken by the U.S. government to combat sex trafficking of Native Americans, among them increased funding, collaboration with Tribal Nations on training programs, increased efforts to identify victims, human trafficking training at all National Indian Gaming Commission regional conferences, and increased resources, training, and technical assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services. Additionally, the Department of Justice recently announced that it would expand the Tribal Access Program that provides tribes access to national crime information to help address sex trafficking, the opioid crisis, and other critical issues.

For more information on the impact of human trafficking on Native American communities, read the following reports:

Photo courtesy of Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons. Note: the photo is not of a victim; it was taken at Seafair Indian Days Pow Wow, Daybreak Star Cultural Center, Seattle, Washington. The event is part of Seafair (a series of annual summer events in Seattle) and under the aegis of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation.