All over the world, indigenous populations are highly vulnerable to trafficking into commercial sex industries. Here in the U.S., the American Indian population is no exception. Unfortunately, sex trafficking among this population is rarely studied. The following is a brief look at sex trafficking of American Indians in the U.S. For a more in-depth analysis, check out this recent report out of Minnesota.
One Native woman, let's call her Lisa, told a social service agency her story. At the age of 12, Lisa's mother began selling her to other men on the reservation, to support her mother's crack habit. To cope with the pain of being raped repeatedly at her mother's behest, Lisa turned to drugs as well. By the time she was 14, Lisa used the only way to earn money she knew to support her addiction -- she began recruiting other young American Indian girls into the sex trade. This system of exploitation rippled through Lisa's community, until she was eventually able to get out.
Lisa's story is not unusual. Some advocates claim cultural trauma and a history of exploitation and abuse of American Indians allows traffickers to get a foothold in these communities. Other experts point to a number of risk factors that influence other populations -- high rates of runaway or throwaway youth, normalization of sex for children, drug and alcohol addition, and social systems failures. All these risk factors are present in some American Indian communities, and in many cases the problems are acute. American Indians also face many of the same barriers members of other traditionally marginalized communities face, like lack of educational opportunities and cycles of poverty which can be hard to break.
Addressing the exploitation of Indian Americans can be challenging, especially for those living in areas governed by tribal law. Often, young girls living on reservations are taken outside the reservation and sold for sex in nearby cities. Therefore, fighting this form of trafficking takes cooperation between tribal authorities and those from outside the tribal area. Some NGOs are working to train both tribal and city-based law enforcement to recognize trafficking across jurisdictions within the U.S., but more work is needed. Additionally, once traffickers are apprehended, it can sometimes be difficult to determine which authority should prosecute them.
The challenges American Indian women and girls face when it comes to sexual exploitation and trafficking are similar to those other native and indigenous populations face, including those in Australia, Canada, and and other formerly colonized countries. It's important to consider the unique needs of all native peoples and include them in broad national plans to address human trafficking in that country.