Earlier this month, the Montana Native Women’s Coalition (MNWC) facilitated the first-ever conference within the state’s Indian country on human trafficking—specifically addressing the selling of Native women for sexual exploitation. Human trafficking (forced labor and sexual slavery) is a multi-billion-dollar, international criminal industry, and there’s plenty of it going on under our noses, according to Toni Plummer-Alvernaz, MNWC’s executive director.
“I think over the next few years, human trafficking will become one of the top three crimes against Native women,” predicted Plummer-Alvernaz, an Assiniboine, who has worked with Native domestic and sexual violence victims for the last 23 years. “We are seeing just the tip of the iceberg.”
In general, accurate statistics on human trafficking victims are difficult to nail down because many women are shamed into not reporting it, said Plummer-Alvernaz. “But I can tell you that in Northeastern Montana, we have definitely seen an increase in Native women who have been trafficked—an increase of 12 to 15 percent in the last year in our program base, which covers 20,000 square miles.” She said victims generally range in age from 15 years old into their early 20s. And the coalition has even had reports of women being trafficked who were in their 50s.
Montana tribal law enforcement reports that oftentimes, Native women are trafficked in exchange for drugs. So how do these women get into these situations to begin with? Plummer-Alvernaz said if you think they are being kidnapped, think again. “As long as we think it is about abduction, we are missing the mark. It is about grooming young women who are often abandoned. They are either runaways or are struggling at home and these men befriend them and give them nice things. Most of the time, they become their boyfriends who later ask them to do ‘favors’ for them.”
The purpose of the two-day conference was to educate and train professionals working in some capacity with Native domestic and sexual violence victims in Montana, such as tribal police and social service directors. Representatives from five of seven Montana tribes attended. “It was really amazing because we did not anticipate that level of response from the tribes,” said MNWC’s executive director.
One of the key topics of the conference was how to recognize a human trafficking scenario. “Tribes need to determine their own definition of what human trafficking is. It looks different than what you would see on TV or in a larger city because we are so rural,” said Plummer-Alvernaz.
According to the Montana Department of Justice, here are some warning signs of potential human trafficking situations:
- Living with an employer
- Poor living conditions
- Multiple people in cramped space
- Inability to speak to individual alone
- Answers appear to be scripted and rehearsed
- Employer is holding identity documents
- Signs of physical abuse
- Submissive or fearful
- Unpaid or paid very little
- Under 18 and in prostitution
Plummer-Alvernaz urges people to stay alert: “Every tribal community needs to become very educated and very aware about human trafficking. They need to understand the signs and report it to an advocate or law enforcement agency if they know or suspect that something is going on.”
A survivor of sexual assault, the Assiniboine Native is hopeful that some of these women can break free from the psychological holds of their perpetrators. “Natives are very resilient by nature. If we can get tied back into our culture and tribal communities, and know who we are and where we came from, the ability to heal is really to our advantage.”
Contributing writer Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.