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Victims of Sex Trafficking Now Have the Pathfinder

The Pathfinder Center is a safe haven for victims of sex trafficking, where they can get the help needed to regain control of their lives.

It started as an unwanted, quixotic mission, but Lisa Heth couldn’t quit it. Although she’d long wanted to create programming and a shelter to serve Native American victims of sex trafficking, buying a decaying 1970s motel was definitely not part of her dream.

The Pathfinder Center opened in July on the Crow Creek Reservation, and like so many other impossible dreams in Indian country, was fueled primarily by grassroots dedication and spirit. Its mission is to provide refuge for victims of sex trafficking from all over South Dakota, both Native and non-Native.

Most mainstream shelters aren’t equipped to serve sex trafficking victims. Their needs – such as longer-term housing, emotional and mental health as well as addiction counseling – are beyond the resources of the average refuge.


In this case, a long-passed generation of Native American women suffered the shame and degradation of sexual violence and sex trafficking that their descendants still suffer today. It is they, in particular, who need providers to understand the role historical trauma plays in their recovery.

From abandoned to a safe haven

Heth often worried about the lack of resources for trafficking victims, but back in March 2015, she was occupied with more immediate needs: finding funding for shelters serving children and victims of domestic violence. She was frantically working the phones looking for funding when a man called to ask if her organization, Wiconi Wawokiya (Helping Families), wanted to buy his motel.

She can’t recall why, but she agreed to drive out and see the property.

It was one of those third-rate family-run motels. Now vacant, the building had been for sale for a long time. “A voice in my head told me that we could use the motel to shelter sex trafficking victims,” she recalled.

“I thought, that’s crazy! We don’t have the money or resources to buy and fix this old place. Why am I even thinking this?”

But that spontaneous thought wouldn’t go away. She talked a bank into loaning Wiconi money to buy it, and then she went to work. She convinced various regional charitable organizations to sponsor rooms: after remodeling and furnishing it, the sponsoring organization would receive recognition in the form of a plaque outside it. She set up a crowdfunding site to receive donations, and tirelessly asked for cash or in kind donations.

Observing her efforts from afar, at one point I sensed from her Facebook posts that she was getting a little worried about the future of the center. “Please pray for us,” she often wrote in her comments.

In late 2015, her prayers were answered – at least partially. The Pathfinder Center received a three-year grant of $750,000 for victims of trafficking from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crimes.

The grant provided validation and a monetary boost, but Heth and her colleagues struggled over the next two years to remodel the motel, gain training in trauma-informed counseling, convince partners to offer education and job training and find longer term funding from private and public funders.

When I visited the site a few days before the official opening, the change was remarkable. All the rooms were remodeled and freshly painted. Common areas included a dining area, classroom with several computers, as well as quiet areas for prayer and contemplation.

The center is safe and welcoming, and sex trafficking victims can receive addiction and mental health services especially targeted to their needs. Clients are also offered General Education Development (GED) classes, job training, and spiritual support from both Christian and Native sources.

How the voices made themselves heard

A March 2017 U.S. Government Accountability Office Report (GAO) to Congress called for more action in identifying the number of Native victims involved in sex trafficking. Most of these reports describe the high rate of violence as a recent trend, backed up by Department of Justice data revealing that Native women have the highest rate of sexual assault of any ethnicity in the U.S., and that two out of three Native women and girls can expect to be raped in their lifetime.

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“Sexual violence has always been an epidemic in Indian country. The only difference now is that white people are beginning to notice and talk about it,” says Amanda Takes War Bonnet of the Great Plains Native Women’s Society in South Dakota.

Sexual violence against and the trafficking of Native women and girls is a story 500 years in the making.

Sarah Deer, of the Muscogee Creek Nation, professor at the University of Kansas’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, School of Public Affairs and Administration, maintains that the sexual exploitation of Native women began with their first contact with Europeans and continues to this day.

Deer, who was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2014, has focused her scholarship on federal law and Native women victim’s rights for over 25 years. According to her, the sexual subjugation of Native women was a product of European and American colonization-warfare; slavery and relocation have all played significant roles in the destruction of Indian nations and the subsequent commercialization of Native women’s bodies.

Amy Casselman, the author of Injustice in Indian Country: Jurisdiction, American Law and Sexual Violence Against Native Women, makes the case that colonization helped frame settlers’ views that Native women’s bodies are analogous to the land they were dominating and conquering. Native women were seen as possessing, like the land, a savage quality and sexuality that appeared to invite both conquest and rape. The bodies of Native women and girls were therefore simply the rights of conquest.

This historical trauma carried forward from initial European contact, and widespread sexual abuse in American Indian boarding schools helped to normalize sexual violence in the Native community. Native women, for instance, were not surprised to read in the 2007 Amnesty International Report, Maze of Injustice, that one in three Native women and girls will be raped in her lifetime.

In 2010, I quoted Nicole Mathews of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition about the rate of rape among our women. She said, “we’d like to know who those other two women are who haven’t been assaulted because we’ve never met them.”

Heth knows this history well and sees how historical trauma plays out in her clients’ lives. A lifelong resident of the Crow Creek reservation, she also knows the painful history of how her people came to live in this place along the Missouri River.

Crying out for healing

Wiconi Wawokiya and the Pathfinder Center are near Fort Thompson, the site of the notorious internment camp for the families of Dakota men who participated in the US-Dakota War of 1862. Starving and outraged over food rations being withheld by Indian agents, the Dakota went to war. Although the conflict only lasted six weeks, several hundred people were killed, including white settlers, for which retribution was swift and cruel.

The internment camp at Fort Thompson.

The internment camp at Fort Thompson.

Two thousand people were interned at Fort Thompson along the Missouri River from 1863-1866. The location was desolate, without any source of food, and many starved. Only are shameful stories finally being told of women forced to exchange sex for food to feed their families, and even sell their daughters to soldiers to survive. Heth learned of her ancestors’ degradation earlier this summer, after reading an article in the Minnesota History magazine written by historian Colette A Hyman, Survival at Crow Creek 1863-1866.


In addition to the history of the Dakota War and subsequent events, Hyman read journals kept by Fort Thompson Colonel Robert W Furnas. These constitute the official account of activity of his regiment. In one entry he wrote, “The Isantee (Dakota) squaws swarmed our camp from early morn to dewy eve, their dusky forms frequently seen flitting in the pale moonlight performing their rites among the shrubbery and stumps to a much later hour-filthy hags whose ugliness was only equaled by their want of anything like modesty or virtue.”

Missionary John Williamson also provided an account, noting that the Dakota women collected what little corn they could at the fort, often sifting through horse manure in order to find enough grain to make soup.

When hearing about how her Dakota ancestors had to sell their own daughters for food, some women have remarked, according to Heth, “Oh I could never have done that; I would have rather died!”

Dying isn’t so easy, however, if it involves watching your children starve to death, says Heth. “Our ancestors did what they had to do to keep their children alive. I see now why I was so driven to create this place. The ancestors were crying out for healing. At last, we’ve heard them.”

This story is published in partnership with Guardian US, the award-winning US digital edition of the Guardian.