“Indigenous women are in the deepest underbellies of trafficking. There is a place between missing and murdered, this is where Indigenous women being trafficked are” stated Maya Chacaby, an Indigenous practitioner skilled in anti-trafficking. The movement ‘Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW)’ has certainly gained momentum, however, many questions have been left unaddressed. Why are these women being targeted? Where are these missing women going? What is being done to help these women receive justice? With respect to sex trafficking, some of these questions may have an answer. There are statistically high numbers of Indigenous women in sex trafficking. In areas where the population of Indigenous people are less than 10%, Indigenous women and youth represent between 70% and 90% of sex trafficking victims.
The selling of Native American women for sex against their will began with Christopher Columbus when he kidnapped young girls and took them back to Europe with him. In 1500 he wrote, “A hundred Castellanos are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.” In addition, there is evidence of soldiers raping Native American women during the American Revolution; Washington’s soldiers killed Native American women and children, subjecting them to rape as well. According to a report on Indigenous survivors in Minnesota, called the Garden of Truth, many Indigenous women attribute the high rates of trafficking and sexual abuse among them to the European colonists. They imposed their culture of sexual abuse onto Indigenous men, who began treating their own women poorly.
According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, individuals are more susceptible to trafficking if they experience poverty, lack of work, homelessness, previous sexual abuse, limited education, and drug or alcohol addiction. These conditions are prevalent in Indigenous communities, and can be attributed to the abuse they have received at the hands of the government as a direct result of colonization. In Canada, many Aboriginal trafficking victims are descendants of survivors of the residential school program. This program, run by the Canadian government, forced Aboriginal children to attend schools that pushed assimilation upon them. The United States had a similar policy of assimilation in which Indigenous children were sent to boarding schools that disconnected them from their families. Reports of sexual abuse were common. Children that did not attend boarding schools were often forced into foster care or adopted by white families, which served to stifle Native American culture. This created a dangerous environment that made Indigenous children outcasts. People who feel like outcasts and belong to an unstable home are more likely to run away, often turning to drugs or alcohol, making them prime targets for human trafficking. Erasure and forced assimilation still persist today, fueling a nefarious trafficking industry. One Native American trafficking survivor stated, “A john said to me, ‘I thought we killed all of you’.” The nature of forced assimilation has created generational trauma, which refers to the objectification and humiliation of Indigenous women since the beginning of colonization.
One of the most meaningful ways to help prevent human trafficking among Indigenous people is to provide Indigenous-specific resources. These should include access to quality education, jobs, addiction services, and housing. Indigenous survivors of human trafficking will be better served if they are allowed to freely incorporate expression of their culture and spirituality, which is not allowed in some shelters. Indigenous leadership in the creation of these resources is the most impactful way to help Indigenous survivors. The escape from trafficking, alongside the healing process, for many Indigenous women includes incorporating cultural ceremonies and prayer exclusive to Native culture. It is imperative that mental health and housing services give Indigenous-specific resources to help promote their culture. Without these Indigenous-led support systems, the legacy of colonization and assimilation continues, even in the healing process for survivors of human trafficking.
Chelsea Caplinger is a Research Fellow at Human Trafficking Search
Photo credit: Dulcey Lima