On average, prostituted Native American
women enter prostitution as minors, many as young as twelve or thirteen, and some even younger. The study conducted by MIWRC
for the Shattered Hearts report found that 63% of clients who reported commercial sexual exploitation entered prostitution
or pornography before turning eighteen. Canadian studies from the 1990's corroborate this finding, reporting the average
age of Aboriginal youth entering prostitution as fourteen. Under federal and state laws, prostituted persons under age eighteen
are automatically considered sex trafficking victims.
2. Histories of Sexual and Physical Abuse
Native American women and girls trafficked into prostitution previously experienced sexual and physical
abuse as children and adults at alarming rates. Service providers characterize childhood sexual abuse as the key experience
“setting the stage for Native girls' entry into the sex trade.” Of the prostituted Native women interviewed
for Garden of Truth, 79% had been sexually abused as children, by an average of four men. Likewise, a Canadian study
of 150 trafficked Aboriginal youth found that 80% had been physically, sexually, emotionally, or verbally abused in their
homes. This correlation is disconcerting given DOJ data showing that Native American women are over 2.5 times more likely
to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the United States generally. More than one in three will be raped in their
lifetime, usually by a non-Native individual; the figure for the general U.S. population is less than one in five.
Physical abuse and neglect are also experienced at much higher rates in Native American communities and among
trafficked women and girls in particular. In 2008, the rate of Native American child maltreatment reports in Minnesota was
more than six times the proportion of Indian children in the population. The resulting high rate of Native children in foster
care (in Minnesota, 9% of children in foster care are Native American even though they represent only 1% of the state's child
population) is strongly related to trafficking. Garden of Truth found that 46% of the prostituted women interviewed
had been in foster care, many suffering sexual abuse by foster parents or aging out of the system with no support. A Canadian
study similarly found 41% of Aboriginal prostituted youth had experienced neglect, compared to 5% of non-Aboriginal youth.
Advocates in Minnesota, Alaska, and nationally report that Native women and girls exposed to sexual or
domestic violence either directly or as witnesses normalize this behavior to the point where they do not see themselves
as victims and cannot recognize their own sexual exploitation. In addition, many Native girls are exposed to prostitution
as a “career option” at a very young age. MIWRC reported that almost half of the ninety-five women screened had
a friend in prostitution, and over one-fourth had a family member in prostitution. The Garden of Truth found that
57% had family involved in prostitution. This exposure leads Native girls to view sexual exploitation as a “fact of
life” greatly increasing their chance of being pressured into the sex trade and decreasing their chance of exiting
it. Canadian studies report that Native youth find no harm in being paid for sex “since it was taken for free when
they were still at home.”
3. Drug and Alcohol Abuse
A history of family
and personal drug and alcohol abuse is another primary characteristic of trafficked American Indian women and girls. American
and Canadian studies identify parental substance abuse as “a primary factor in the physical and sexual abuse of Native
youth, Native youth's decision to run away from home, and their resulting recruitment for prostitution.” In the 2007
Minnesota Student Survey, American Indian girls reported problematic alcohol and drug use by a family member at more than
double the rate of girls in the general population.
Studies also find a high level of personal drug
use among prostituted Native American women. Minnesota advocates report that most often Native women have a drug or alcohol
addiction prior to entering the sex trade, which is then exploited by a pimp with access to drugs to force the woman into
prostitution. Pimps will also provide Native women with free drugs, get them addicted, and then begin prostituting them.
A Canadian study found that Aboriginal prostitutes were twice as likely to use drugs and a significant proportion remain
in the sex trade to maintain a drug habit.
This risk factor is disproportionately prevalent in Native
communities. Among 12th grade Native girls in Minnesota, 20-35% reported at least one indicator of a substance abuse problem,
over twice the proportion of girls in the general population. The high rate of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) among
Native Americans (studies show rates that are many times higher than the rates for whites) is also strongly correlated with
sex trafficking. Research of individuals with FASD found that over 50% of such individuals have been sexually victimized
and are especially vulnerable to pimps offering free drugs.
Native American women and girls trafficked into prostitution ran away from home and were homeless as a result of abuse, neglect,
family substance abuse, or lack of opportunity on impoverished reservations. Suzanne Koepplinger, Executive Director of
MIWRC, writes that she sees high numbers of young Native females who are homeless or runaway youth who report exchanging
sex for shelter, food, or drugs--what is known as “survival sex.” Local police and Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) agents in Anchorage, Alaska, report seeing increasing numbers of rural Alaska Native girls and women running away
from their families and villages for Anchorage in search of better opportunities “only to be lured into prostitution
by pimps who see young Native runaways as especially easy prey.”
Running away and homelessness
are common in Native communities. The 2007 Minnesota Student Survey found that 27% of Native American 12th grade girls reported
having run away at least once in the previous year versus 8% of all girls. Native American also represent 28% of unaccompanied
homeless youth in rural Minnesota and 12% in Minneapolis/St. Paul, although they are only 2% of Minnesota's youth population.
Given national statistics estimating that once in the street, one third of runaway children will have some involvement with
prostitution or pornography, Native women and girls are at a much higher risk of becoming sex trafficking victims.
5. Generational Trauma
The defining characteristic of Native American Indian sex trafficking
is the unique generational trauma from which victims suffer. From the first colonizers to present-day pimps, generations
of Native American women and girls have been repeatedly and forcefully exploited. European colonizers used Native women for
their own sexual fulfillment, justifying their acts on their belief that Native women, whose sexual autonomy was respected
within tribes, were promiscuous, depraved, and unable to be controlled by Native men. Native women captured in the wars
between colonizers and tribes were frequently used for sex and labor or sold for profit.
expansion, sexual abuse by traders and settlers occurred regularly with little or no legal intervention; indeed, the legal
system did not consider rape of a Native woman to be rape. In the 1850's in California, Native women were “routinely
captured and either held as concubines by their kidnappers or sold to other white men for their personal use.” U.S.
troops sent to protect settlers raped, murdered, and sexually mutilated Native women with impunity. Mass killings of American
Indians during this period meant that “[o]ral traditions for spiritual healing often died with the elders;” many
of the traditions that survived were outlawed by the U.S. government in 1881, weakening tribal nations and hindering survivors'
ability to grieve.
Sexual assault by military forces during forced migrations to reservations was
also commonplace. Once on reservations, soldiers regularly exploited Native American's dependency on them for food, clothing,
and shelter to extract sexual ‘favors' from Native women. As the forced migrations ended in the late 1800's, the government
began removing Native children to boarding schools, leaving Native communities no time to address their collective trauma.
In the schools, Native children suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of instructors and were threatened to never
speak of the abuse--threats that became known as the “Don't Talk Rule”.
programs, which began in 1940, once again relocated Native Americans, but this time from reservations to cities with promises
of plentiful jobs and transition assistance. The government's failure to provide this support left American Indians unemployed
at eight to ten times the national average and isolated from the support of their tribes--“the perfect opportunity
for pimps and predators to gain a foothold in the lives of Native people.” The forced sterilization and child removal
policies of the 1960s and 1970s continued government exploitation of Native women, leaving “Native people vulnerable
to victimization ... [and] ensur[ing] that yet another generation of Native women would be exposed to sexual abuse.”
This history of exploitation has led to what is known as “generational trauma,” as explained
in Shattered Hearts:
U.S. government actions such as extermination policies, religious persecution,
forced migration to Indian reservations, and systematic removal of Native children to boarding schools caused repeated exposure
to trauma, which impeded a natural grieving process. Each time, past and current trauma were transferred to the next generation
along with the unresolved grief in what has been termed generational trauma or historical trauma.
to Koepplinger and other advocates and researchers, generational trauma leaves “entire communities unable to internalize
a healthy sense of self” and protect themselves against sexual exploitation.
Studies in Canada
and the United States find that this deeply pervasive generational trauma leads many American Indian families and communities
to turn at high rates to alcohol, drugs, violence, and crime “as they try to make sense of their own hopelessness.”
It has also been linked to the disproportionately high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among American Indian women
and the extreme emotional vulnerability of many Native girls. These disparities, as discussed above, open the door to sex
The traumatic legacy of sexual exploitation of Native American women also deeply affects
their ability to exit sex trafficking. In Amnesty International's report, Maze of Injustice, indigenous women described
how they “experience contemporary sexual violence as a legacy of impunity for past atrocities.” As a result,
many Native victims do not report such crimes, believing no one will investigate. They also are reluctant to seek help out
of fear of being blamed, criticized, or even physically hurt by people in their communities for whom generational trauma
has normalized sexual exploitation and the culture of silence. Tribal elders, community leaders, and Native victim advocates
have spoken out about sex trafficking, but they report that the normalcy of sexual exploitation makes it difficult to motivate
a community-wide response to the crime. This combination of reluctance, indifference, and vulnerability has allowed traffickers
to get a foothold in Native American communities.