Native Women and Sex Trafficking: An Overlooked Crisis

Rose Arrieta April 17, 2012

"Sundance in Red" is part of the Traded Moons exhibit at San Francisco's Galeria de la Raza.

Many peo­ple have read or heard reports of the glob­al cri­sis of sex traf­fick­ing and pros­ti­tu­tion. But few are aware of how dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Native Amer­i­can women and girls are impacted. 

In San Fran­cis­co, native artist Geri Mon­taño exam­ines this crit­i­cal over­looked issue in her exhib­it, Trad­ed Moons,” which runs from April 14 to May 12 at the Gale­ria de la Raza gallery.

Mon­taño told In These Times, I acknowl­edge sex traf­fick­ing is a cri­sis over­seas and in many cul­tures around the globe. It’s reached cri­sis pro­por­tions. But being of Native descent and rarely hear­ing about the sex traf­fick­ing which affects Native Amer­i­can women here in the U.S. and First Nations peo­ple…, I was moved to bring this to pub­lic attention.”

Mon­taño address­es this ongo­ing cri­sis in her mixed medi­um work, which includes col­lages, sketch­es, draw­ings and images of indige­nous women and girls, sur­round­ed by sym­bols of native culture.

In Sun­dance in Red,” a young girl with long black braids wears a red fur-lined dress and over­sized red high heels, a pair of hand­cuffs dan­gle from one wrist. Paper doll cutouts sur­round the image. Anoth­er work, 7th Moon,” shows a young girl wear­ing her hair in tra­di­tion­al Hopi buns and neck­lace, in a garter belt, black stock­ings and red shoes. There are moon images around her. She stares out at the viewer.

Says Mon­taño, The forced removal of native chil­dren and the trau­ma of relo­ca­tion and abuse cor­re­lates strong­ly to sex traf­fick­ing. There is a socio-polit­i­cal link. Traf­fick­ers tar­get women and girls who are liv­ing in vul­ner­a­ble con­di­tions due to pover­ty, pre­vi­ous abuse, or dur­ing times of polit­i­cal upheaval.”

A bill intro­duced in Octo­ber by U.S. Sen­ate Indi­an Affairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Daniel K. Aka­ka (D‑Hawaii)—S.B. 1763, or the Stand Against Vio­lence and Empow­er Native Women (SAVE Native Women) Act — would pro­vide Indi­an Coun­try with juris­dic­tion over non-Indi­ans who com­mit crimes on Indi­an lands, improve the Native pro­grams under the Vio­lence Against Women Act (VAWA), and improve data gath­er­ing pro­grams to bet­ter under­stand and respond to sex traf­fick­ing of Native women. It would also require the Nation­al Insti­tute of Jus­tice to include women in Alas­ka Native Vil­lages and sex traf­fick­ing in its study of vio­lence against Indi­an women.

Nicole Matthews, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Min­neso­ta Indi­an Women’s Sex­u­al Assault Coali­tion (MIWSAC) told Indi­an Coun­try Today, Native women are at excep­tion­al­ly high risk for pover­ty and sex­u­al vio­lence, which are both ele­ments in the traf­fick­ing of women.” Matthews co-authored Gar­den of Truth,” an Octo­ber 2011 report on pros­ti­tu­tion and traf­fick­ing of native women in Min­neso­ta. Con­duct­ed by MIWSAC and the San Fran­cis­co-based Pros­ti­tu­tion Research & Edu­ca­tion, the study is based on inter­views with more than 100 Native women.

(“Gar­den of Truth” fol­lows a 2009 report by the Min­neso­ta Indi­an Wom­en’s Resource Cen­ter (MIWRC), Shat­tered Hearts” (PDF), which doc­u­ment­ed the com­mer­cial exploita­tion of native women and girls in Min­neso­ta and was sparked by var­i­ous reports from trib­al advo­cates in South Dako­ta and Min­neso­ta of indige­nous females being traf­ficked over state lines and into Mex­i­co as well as police res­cu­ing native girls who had been lured off reser­va­tions and tak­en onto ships in port.)

A Unit­ed Nations report released this month, Glob­al Report on Traf­fick­ing in Per­sons,” says 2.4 mil­lion peo­ple around the world are trad­ed into slav­ery each year. Eighty per­cent, or 1.9 mil­lion, are vic­tims of sex trafficking. 

Yuri Fedo­tov, the head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, told a day-long Gen­er­al Assem­bly meet­ing on traf­fick­ing that 17 per­cent are traf­ficked to per­form forced labor, includ­ing in homes and sweat­shops. He said $32 bil­lion is being earned annu­al­ly by those who run human traf­fick­ing net­works, and that two-thirds of vic­tims are women. At any one time, 2.4 mil­lion peo­ple suf­fer the mis­ery of this humil­i­at­ing and degrad­ing crime,” Fedo­tov told the assembly.

Some of the traf­fick­ers pull women and girls from Native Amer­i­can reser­va­tions. In its Shat­tered Hearts” report, MIWRC says the his­toric expe­ri­ences of native women in the Unit­ed States make them unique­ly vul­ner­a­ble to com­mer­cial sex­u­al exploita­tion, and unique in the ways that such exploita­tion impacts their well-being.”

Melis­sa Far­ley, founder of Pros­ti­tu­tion Research and Edu­ca­tion, who co-authored the Gar­den of Truth” report, and who spoke April 14 at a pan­el on Montaño’s exhib­it, told Indi­an Coun­try Today, It has rarely been includ­ed in dis­cus­sions of sex­u­al vio­lence against Native women. The…women in this study did not choose pros­ti­tu­tion. Instead, pros­ti­tu­tion chose them, through a com­bi­na­tion of harms per­pe­trat­ed against them and a lack of escape options.”

Mon­taño added, Glob­al sex traf­fick­ing has reached cri­sis pro­por­tions. … Sex traf­fick­ing of Native Amer­i­can women … is widespread.”

Cor­rec­tion: The orig­i­nal ver­sion of this sto­ry said the Min­neso­ta Indi­an Women’s Sex­u­al Assault Coali­tion pro­duced Shat­tered Hearts.” In fact, the Min­neso­ta Indi­an Wom­en’s Resource Cen­ter — specif­i­cal­ly, San­di Pierce — pro­duced the report. We regret the error.

Rose Arri­eta was born and raised in Los Ange­les. She has worked in print, broad­cast and radio, both main­stream and com­mu­ni­ty ori­ent­ed — includ­ing being a for­mer edi­tor of the Bay Area’s inde­pen­dent com­mu­ni­ty bilin­gual biweek­ly El Tecolote. She cur­rent­ly lives in San Fran­cis­co, where she is a free­lance jour­nal­ist writ­ing for a vari­ety of out­lets on social jus­tice issues.
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