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Living the Life: Sex Abuse Leads to Sex Trafficking

Native women and girls with their high rates of sexual assault are particularly vulnerable to sex traffickers.

Native women and girls with their high rates of sexual assault are particularly vulnerable to sex traffickers. Kevin Koliner, South Dakota Assistant U.S. Attorney noted that more than 50 percent of the sex trafficking cases prosecuted over the past five years by the South Dakota State’s Attorney’s office involved Native victims, an astonishing number.

Despite media coverage suggesting the Bakken oil patch is the main driver and destination for sex trafficking in the Great Plains region, most of the trafficking affecting Indian country is “home-grown,” according to Koliner. Many of the cases involve family members and can be described as survival sex or sex in exchange for items such as beer or drugs. “I can understand why people would want to attribute the trafficking solely to the Bakken oil fields, but Sioux Falls is a long way from Williston, North Dakota,” he said.

Several stories in the mainstream media have eagerly made this connection often citing the boomtown atmosphere surrounding the Bakken oil fields as the primary driver of sex trafficking. Tribal police from the Fort Berthold reservation, however, note that the notorious Morsette sex trafficking case involving tribal members coercing underage girls to have sex in exchange for money and drugs actually predated the Bakken oil boom by at least a year. Although perpetrators were prosecuted and convicted in 2012, the crimes occurred in 2008-09.

Koliner described a recent case in which a Native woman living on a South Dakota reservation (he requested that the woman’s name and location be withheld to protect victims) trafficked several young women in her care to migrant construction workers in the area in exchange for filling her gas tank and for food and beer.

Regarding the high numbers of Native sex trafficking victims, Koliner suggests that the crime may not be a new problem but rather reflects the terminology used in criminal charges. “In the past, perpetrators may have been charged with aggravated sexual abuse, rape or other categories,” he said. He points out that the perpetrators are “all over the map, Native and non-Native alike.”

“Most were sexually abused as kids before they got with a pimp later in life. They walk around thinking everything that has happened to them is their fault, that they simply made bad choices; they don’t see themselves as victims,” adds Vednita Carter, founder of Breaking Free, a Minneapolis-based non-profit dedicated to helping women escape prostitution.

According to Sarah Deer, an attorney and professor of law who has worked for years to draw attention to high rates of sexual assault among Native women, the sex trafficking of Native girls and women is a story 500 years in the making. It is part of a historical dynamic of trauma that has framed Native women as more sexually available than others. Deer says the sexual exploitation of Native women began with their initial contact with Europeans and continues to this day. Exacerbated by the boarding school experience which contributed to normalizing sexual abuse, Native peoples have a traumatic history of sexual violence.

RELATED: ‘The Beginning and End of Rape’: A Look at Sarah Deer’s Newest Book

“These young women may be coerced into believing they are providing for their families and thus be reluctant to testify against them,” Koliner said. “There is nothing about Native culture that makes young women more vulnerable than those of other ethnicities.”

“Our reservations in South Dakota are located in the poorest counties in the United States. This is a crime of poverty. Sex trafficking in Indian country is a national embarrassment,” noted Koliner.

Once these young Native women move to urban areas with the hope of leaving poverty behind, however, they are especially vulnerable to sex traffickers. At that point, they may indeed end up in larger sex trafficking operations serving places like the Bakken oil fields. “I’ve had survivors tell me that they might as well do it a thousand times. After you’ve sold yourself once, you forever wear the label,” he said.

A Mother Fights Back

Since moving to Rapid City from a reservation in South Dakota, Whiteeagle (not her real name) has struggled with trying to keep her 19-year-old daughter Lina away from sex traffickers. Brutally raped at age 14 by the relatives of a friend on the reservation Lina began engaging in “low-key” prostitution, exchanging sex for drugs according to Whiteeagle.

After the family moved to Rapid City, Lina began hanging around a t-shirt store with girls from other reservations. The girls posed for photos wearing provocative clothing from the store. After days away, Lina would return home visibly intoxicated, with jewelry and money given to her by the men at the store. According to Lina, men frequently had sex with girls in the back room of the store, which had couches and video games. She described being driven to other locations to have sex with men.

Whiteeagle confronted the photographer and owner of the store. “He said he was trying to help Lina by giving her money,” she said. “I told him she has a family, she doesn’t need your help!”

At the urging of ICTMN, Whiteeagle reported her suspicions about illegal activity at the store to Rapid City police. Sergeant Kelvin Moser visited the store but did not witness any illegal activity. “He must have used Lina’s name when he talked with them because the owner called and threatened our family,” Whiteeagle complained.

Sgt. Moser suggested that Whiteeagle take out a restraining order against the man. He insisted it would be best if Lina came forward and became involved in bringing charges.

Whiteeagle was outraged. “What the hell good is a restraining order going to do? That’s just a piece of paper. She doesn’t want to press charges, she just wants to get better, to get away from all of this!”

The case is under investigation according to Rapid City police. The store, however, has since closed and all references to it and its associates have since been taken down from Facebook.

Lina is currently in jail for use and possession of meth.

“Our girls are trying to relieve their pain with all these drugs, cutting and suicides. It’s like they’ve been taken over,” Whiteeagle said. “I don’t know where choice enters into all this.”

New Age Slavery

“When I make a true choice, I’m able to do so knowing all that is involved in that choice. If I change my mind, I should be able to leave. But 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,” Carter said. “At some point, however, their spirits fall down and they see that they are indeed victims.”

Initially some may 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 begin to cry,” Carter said.

“Women come to realize they have been hurt; that things have happened to them that they never expected to happen. Men can do anything they want to a prostitute; women who come to us are broken,” Carter added.

Advocates stress that it’s important not to blindside women too soon with the notion that they are victims. “That pimp who was so cruel to them may also have been the only one who showed them compassion and said, ‘I believe in you,’” said Sarah Edstrom, a certified sexual assault advocate at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. “Of course he was only taking care of his product by keeping it clean and uninjured and therefore more marketable. Coming to that realization can be devastating for women.”

Melanie Heitcamp, executive director of Youthworks of Bismarck and Fargo, North Dakota agrees. “The best historical social service practices are not the best for trafficking victims.”

Heitcamp’s organization has just received over $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services Administration for Children and Families to create culturally appropriate and trauma-informed services for victims of trafficking for youth between the ages of 13-22. “I’m not yet sure of the wording of our policy surrounding addiction,” she explains. “We want to create a therapeutic program that doesn’t contribute to blame and shame; we are working at creating better ways to do assessments for incoming clients.”

Still, there is sometimes a catch. Now that sex trafficking is beginning to receive the type of awareness brought to the issue of domestic violence, federal, state and tribal health and social service agencies are struggling to create meaningful ways to serve sex trafficking victims. There are numerous barriers, such as requiring victims to cooperate with law enforcement to receive services. For instance, the Office of Victims Services Comprehensive Services Office for Victims of All Forms of Human Trafficking sent the following response to ICTMN’s inquiry about services available to adult sex trafficking victims:

“For the purpose of eligibility for services under this cooperative agreement, adult victims of human trafficking are required to cooperate with reasonable requests from law enforcement on the investigation or prosecution of trafficking in persons. OVC will consider exceptions on a case-by-case basis for adult victims who would be negatively impacted or re-traumatized by a requirement to assist law enforcement. Minors are not required to assist law enforcement; however, they should be encouraged to do so.”

“We have had to turn adults seeking help away from our office. Because of the limitations of the Safe Harbor legislation we can’t help them in ways they need. Survivors can’t help that they’ve turned 18. It doesn’t make any sense to me; they are still victims,” said Jessica Mantor, Safe Harbor Director at Life House in Duluth, Minnesota. Life House provides housing and support for homeless youth.

“The effects of sex trafficking are tough to turn around. Everybody wants to belong to something. When they don’t have a support system we have to help them find someone they can rely on,” said Mantor.

“Survivors need to have someone to talk to who won’t condemn them, usually another survivor,” said Carter.

“They need more than therapy, they need healing, ceremony to call their spirits back; they need genuine support and love,” said Edstrom.

There is a growing chorus of voices within Indian country that is turning to the unique needs of Native survivors. The first and only shelter specifically designated to serve Native American sex trafficking victims has recently been funded by the Department of Justice. Operated by Wiconi Wawokiya with the name Pathfinders, the shelter is due to open later this year. According to Lisa HetHope, executive director of Wiconi Wawokiya located on the Crow Creek Reservation, Pathfinders will offer long-term housing for survivors as well as mental health, job training and spiritual support services.

RELATED: ‘My Body Is Not for Sale’: Fashion Fights Sex-Trafficking

Traditional Indian social units must not be ignored, either. As demonstrated by this three-part investigative report (see Living the Life: Little Girls Don’t Daydream of Being Prostitutes and Living the Life: Limited Support for Adult Trafficking Survivors), the family core is perhaps the only viable lifeline and chance for a woman to attempt to leave ‘the life.’ When we looked for women struggling to escape the nightmare of prostitution and all its attendant afflictions, we found mothers of these young survivors determined to navigate the maze and perils of current health and support systems, determined to show their scars and tenacity in an effort to help their daughters heal from wounds generations old. Like Kai and Naivara (see Battle at Home: Traditional Spirit v. Addiction Spirit), Mary G. and Hope (see Surviving for the Love of Hope), Whiteeagle and Lina are forging their own path, with each small success met with equal parts uncertainty and doubt. Throughout it all, Whiteeagle’s determination has grown (see Ain’t No Sacajewea).

Whiteeagle now talks about how men, both on and off the reservation, were preying on wounded young women like her daughter. It made her mad; soon she found other mothers who were mad as well. Native women are standing up and speaking out against the violence and drugs in their communities, according to Whiteeagle. “Our girls are such easy prey, don’t even know they’re being sold,” she said. “These criminals get girls high in a party situation. The girls don’t even know it has all been pre-set that they will be having sex with the men there.”

She has overcome her own trauma—she was raped by someone she trusted. “I figured I’d already been stabbed, beaten during my assault. Now, I have to stop being afraid and advocate for myself and my children,” she said. She spoke of an incident on her reservation in which a group of mothers surrounded the car of a meth dealer as he tried to leave the neighborhood before police arrived. “We took up brooms, pipes, ax handles, whatever we could find and kept him there until the police arrived.”

Whiteeagle however, has little confidence in the police. “They are mainly interested in observing their protocol, making arrests, getting people to press charges; we, the mothers, are interested in helping our daughters,” she said. “It’s the moccasins on the ground that will save our people, that and our spirituality.”