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Sex Trafficking Rampant in Indian Country; Pimps on Prowl for Native Girls

A story about the prevalence of sexual slavery and prostitution in the Native American community, as pimps seek out Indians.
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Is sexual trafficking happening in your city? What about on your remote reservation? The short answer is, “Yes, right under your nose.”

Klamath tribal member and Portland, Oregon resident Jeri Sundvall-Williams’s horrific sexual slavery ended 22 years ago, and it took an attack from a male customer, who stabbed her multiple times, to give her the courage to break free. “The light went on that I didn’t want to die,” Sundvall-Williams says. “Prostituted women have low self-esteem. They don’t feel their worth. My worth was in my two children. I couldn’t leave them without a mother.”

Prostitution becomes a trafficking crime when the victim is a minor, or at any age if controlled by force, fraud or coercion. Sundvall-Williams says she had to walk up and down Portland’s 82nd Avenue, a thoroughfare running through several residential neighborhoods, each night to bring home $300 or face a beating by her pimp.

The life of a trafficking victim typically involves starvation, confinement, beatings, gang rape and forced drug use. They must also contend with addiction, broken bones, concussions, burns, vaginal and anal tears, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), sterility, miscarriages, forced abortions and even contagious diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis, malaria and pneumonia. Psychological damage includes mind-body separation, disassociated ego states, shame, grief, fear, distrust, hatred of men, self-hatred, suicide and suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder, acute anxiety, depression, insomnia, physical hyperalertness and self-loathing. Some victims suffer from traumatic bonding, a form of coercive control in which the perpetrator instills fear as well as gratitude for being allowed to live.

Intertwined with sexual trafficking are sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse and poverty. In a law review, Sarah Deer, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen and professor at the William Mitchell School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota wrote that many women and girls are coerced into sex work—on and off reservations—by drug dealers to pay for their drugs.

This type of sexual violence targets Native women and girls due to the culture of silence in every community, the widespread poverty, and the legacy of appalling sexual violence committed by white men against Native women, says Deer. The U.S. government acknowledges that the rates of sexual abuse and rape committed against Native women and girls are higher than those for the general population.

Erin Tapahe, foreground, prayed quietly before her performances that she would represent her Navajo ancestors well when she danced in the touring company of Brigham Young University’s Living Legends troupe.

Sundvall-Williams, who escaped the street life, is trying to help Portland women trapped in the sex-trafficking industry.

One of the few opportunities a trafficked woman has for escape is when her pimp allows her to enter a medical facility for treatment of injuries, pregnancy or STDs. Hospitals and clinics can intervene—as they do for victims of domestic violence—though many lack the proper training to do so.

At the “Native Women: Protecting, Shielding, and Safeguarding Our Sisters, Mothers and Daughters” Senate Committee on Indian Affairs oversight hearing this past July, Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) declared that women are finally starting to talk about the traffickers who prey on them in urban and reservation communities. Deer testified that the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 authored by then–U.S. Senator Bryan Dorgan, “failed to specifically address prostitution or sex trafficking as forms of violence against women.” Dorgan, who chaired the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, stated the bill was a response to the “crisis” in law enforcement on many Indian reservations, where the rates for most violent crimes far exceed the national average.

Portland—which has the ninth-largest Native American population in the country and is close to numerous reservations—has been repeatedly called one of the country’s most livable cities. But that city’s prestige took a hit when journalist Dan Rather renamed it “Pornland” in a report last year on his HDNet news program Dan Rather Reports. “Eighty-year-old men paying a premium to violate teenage girls, sometimes supplied by former drug gangs now into child sex trafficking big time? You’ve got to be kidding. Nope,” Rather said. “That’s happening and a lot more along the same lines.”

The long stretch of Interstate-5 that runs from below Los Angeles and up to British Columbia is a hotbed of sexual trafficking, especially during big events, such as the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Pimps also send prostituted girls and women to the truck stops that dot the freeways, where the girls are known as “lot lizards.” They also work the comfort rest stations along I-5 during the early-morning hours, when pimps and johns know the state police are less likely to be on patrol.

Portland is fertile ground for pilot projects that help law enforcement break free of a pattern of arresting underage prostituted women and prosecuting them as criminals in order to go after the pimp. Much of the impetus for that change came from the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force (OHTTF) established in 2005 with funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Portland is finally starting to treat victims like victims instead of the bad guys, but the system has to evolve further and faster to catch up to these kids, says Keith Bickford, OHTTF director and Multnomah County deputy sheriff. “The juvenile system was so far behind. Portland needed a lot of help, but it isn’t the only city to need that. The police still need arrest powers to get some of these girls and boys off the streets,” Bickford says. “If all the signs lead to sexual trafficking, [those arrested] go directly into dependency and are given help.”

A huge problem in Portland, and nationally, says Bickford, has been a lack of safe housing to shelter victims from their pimp while they

wend through the legal and personal-recovery process. “When I took over the director’s position in 2007, we didn’t have any beds,” he says. According to the Oregonians Against Trafficking Humans website “realistically, however, only 30 adequately equipped beds exist in the entire nation to meet the rehabilitation needs of children who’ve been caught in the web of sex trafficking.” Until November 2011, not one of those beds was in Oregon. Bickford says Janus Youth Programs, a Portland youth homeless program, set up seven beds to rescue trafficked minors in November.

The National Runaway Switchboard (NRS) claims that one out of every three teens who are either kicked out of their homes or run away are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of being on the street. NRS says pimps prowl the streets looking for kids lugging an extra-heavy backpack, and recruit children as young as 11 or 12 into prostitution. ���Survival sex” is traded for a place to stay. Most prostitutes begin before they’re 18, and Bickford notes that coming of legal age, “doesn’t mean you suddenly have good reasoning skills.”

Pimps sometimes seek out American Indians because they can masquerade them as an exotic ethnicity—such as Polynesian, Asian or Native. A pimp will train his victims to tell people he’s her boyfriend. “You have to understand—especially with how young the girls are—that this is the first love of their life,” Sundvall-Williams explains. “He tells them they are beautiful. He tells them he loves them. She thinks, Oh I love him, I can’t turn him in.” A convicted pimp told The New York Times in 2009, “With the young girls, you promise them heaven, they’ll follow you to hell.”

Portland Mayor Sam Adams says his city is getting better at exposing and fighting sexual trafficking, but he reports that it’s a hard battle to quantify. When he’d go biking down 82nd Avenue, Adams once saw a thriving sex trade, with girls walking the city streets and escort businesses marketing them. A blitz of the area by police pushed much of that activity underground and online. Willamette University College of Law’s 2010 reports Modern Slavery in Our Midst: A Human Rights Report on Ending Human Trafficking in Oregon, states that Oregon’s lax trafficking laws, permissive state constitution’s free-speech protections for commercial sex enterprises, high percentages of youth in foster care and homeless and runaway kids, migrant workers, and hard-to-monitor rural farming and forestry operations makes it a magnet for human trafficking. In some ways, it is the invisible crime.

The invisibility of victims is another problem, says Tawna Sanchez, family services director at Portland’s Native American Youth and Family Center. “Native American families don’t like to admit their daughter is in the sex trade, and there are so many reasons girls and women don’t come forward.” When Sundvall-Williams gives public talks, she says that Native women “thank me for being brave enough to talk about it because most women suffer in silence due to their fear of judgment from others. It’s a really big problem in the community here.”

Sundvall-Williams insists it’s worth the hard effort required to combat sexual trafficking in Native communities, and rescue these women, these girls. As proof she points to her own life and how it has turned around. In 1994 she became an organizer for low-income workers and workers of color to address on-the-job toxic environmental exposures and workers rights. Her work has also included participation in the creation of the 1998 Lead Comprehensive Plan for the city of Portland and the Portland Brownfield Showcase community advisory committee. In 2000 Governor John Kitzhaber appointed her to the Portland/Vancouver Bi-state Transportation and Trade I-5 Corridor Task Force to address healthier solutions in regional transportation. She co-founded the Urban Workers Union in 2000 and with its organizing committee got a winning contract for parking-lot attendants. She oversaw community enhancement fund grants. She serves on the Columbia River Crossing Task Force. In 2006 she became a neighborhood program co-coordinator for the city of Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement, and project manager for more than $300,000 in funding for Diversity Leadership Programs that fund community-based organizations of color and immigrant and refugee communities to teach and encourage civic engagement from their constituencies.

And in November she plans to run for a seat on Portland’s city council. “My father was the first general manager of the Klamath Tribes after we got re-recognized after the termination era,” she says. “My mother was a great leader in her own right.” Her parents, she says, taught their children they were supposed to serve.

“I love the city of Portland, and I love Portlanders. Portland is a white city, but it’s an incredibly diverse city. I have a heart to serve. I have developed the skills. If you didn’t care, you’d keep your job, make the good pay and the benefits, and go home at the end of the day. But it’s my role to step up to leadership and move forward.”

If elected, Sundvall-Williams promises to raise the banner against sexual trafficking even higher.


Minnesota Report Examines Sex Trafficking of Native Women