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Forum on trafficking of Native women prompts conversations, calls for change

DULUTH — Panelist Ray “Skip” Sandman emphasized the first step is acknowledging that the problem exists. “There’s that silent thing we need to overcome and it’s the ‘Shhh. Don’t talk about it.”

Audience member Sue Hilliard of the Lake County Sex Trafficking Task Force offers ideas for combatting the trafficking of Native women in Minnesota.
MinnPost photo by Rita Kovtun

DULUTH — Miigwetch! It’s an Ojibwe word that means “thank you” — a word that was used several times to express gratitude to community members attending a forum in Duluth last week on the trafficking of Native women in the harbor, greater Duluth area and state of Minnesota. The problem is one that seems to have flown under the radar of the general public but remains a pressing issue.

Research findings, such as a 2011 report co-authored by master’s of social work student Christine Stark titled “The Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota,” [PDF] reveal that 92 percent of victims interviewed wanted to escape prostitution, 98 percent of victims had been homeless at some point and 84 percent had been physically assaulted in prostitution. And while the trafficking of Native women and children through the harbor of Duluth, an issue of international trafficking, was more rampant in the past, it continues in smaller numbers to this day.

According to Stark and other members of Thursday’s panel, Native women often enter into prostitution unwittingly: It might be through a party on a ship, it might be through a boyfriend, it might be through simply frequenting a bar. But their background puts them in perhaps the most disenfranchised category in this country when one considers their oppressed history, the physical abuse and stripping of culture in boarding schools, as well as an upbringing that often instills low self-esteem and cultivates vulnerability.

“Part of the reason I started running the boats was the parties,” said panelist Gail Trombley, a survivor of trafficking. “The men would always give you all this attention and make you feel beautiful. … Our culture says that we are to be honored, we carry life, we bear love – I was never taught that. My mother acted as if being Anishinaabeg was something to be ashamed of.”

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Panelist Ray “Skip” Sandman emphasized the first step in addressing trafficking is acknowledging that the problem exists.

“There’s that silent thing we need to overcome and it’s the ‘Shhh. Don’t talk about it. Don’t even look at it,’” Sandman said. “The more vocal that we can be about this issue and other issues that are out there, the more that we reclaim back as citizens our power. … The people who are profiting from it, they don’t want us to talk about it because that’s disrupting their money flow.”

Gaps in legislation remain

While seeing the recently adopted Safe Harbor law — which protects sexually exploited children under 18 from being treated as delinquents — as a step in the right direction, Stark believes there are still major gaps in legislation surrounding trafficking.

“I think it will help bring awareness to the issue,” Stark said, but she argues the age restriction is problematic.

“To just sort of have this random age cutoff, where here you’re a victim and here you’re a criminal, makes no sense.”

Stark puts forth the call for adopting the Nordic model, which absolves victims of prostitution of punishment and puts the blame on the pimps and johns. The victims also receive social services including assistance with housing and education.

According to Stark, we need “to think about how we might adapt that to U.S. culture and U.S. laws. … but at the very least, the philosophy behind it is most certainly adaptable to the U.S.”

Reyna Crow, a member of grassroots coalitions Idle No More Duluth and Native Sisters Society working against trafficking of Native women, emphasized the community needs to put more pressure on pushing for legal change now.

“Not only are these people not safe in the environments they’re in, they’re not safe in the system,” Crow said. “Call your congresspeople. Lean on [Rep. Rick] Nolan.”

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A 2012 report from the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center (MIWRC) titled “Early Intervention to Avoid Sex Trading and Trafficking of Minnesota’s Female Youth: A Benefit-Cost Analysis” [PDF] adds an economic argument for effective intervention. It says the return on investment is approximately $34 for every $1 spent on prevention of adolescent sex trading by Minnesota taxpayers.

Linked to homelessness

Prostitution is closely linked to homelessness – women who can’t find shelter often resort to prostituting themselves in exchange for a roof over their heads, according to Stark’s “Garden of Truth” report. The current lack of shelters, and more important, shelters that can cater to the spectrum of victims’ needs, is another issue standing in the way of curbing the problem.

Not only are trafficking victims hit with a long list of physical traumas, many also suffer depression and a range of anxiety disorders. Mental health already has a stigma in the larger eye; tack on a minority standing and the problem worsens, according to citations in the report that also say Natives have limited access to mental-health services.

There are currently not enough resources to fight trafficking effectively, even at a lower level in writing grants or organizing programs. Although there are some organizations, like the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) in Duluth, offering shelter services, Reyna Crow believes there is not enough support, or enough appropriate support, for victims.

people in conversation photo
MinnPost photo by Rita Kovtun
Hilliard and panelist Skip Sandman converse after the forum.

Stark said these women need culturally specific services run by Native people, for Native people, since so many of them have been socialized to shun their culture.

For Trombley, the most important step of in the recovery process was validation – more specifically, being pulled in to help open a homeless shelter. “Once you validate that person’s spirit, the rest will fall into place,” Trombley said. 

Stark offered further examples of getting involved or fulfilling a dream deferred, such as getting an education, becoming a social worker, becoming a nurse or helping other women out of prostitution. Trombley said something anyone can do is volunteer with these women to help honor them and instill a sense of self-worth.

A call for accountability

“We have the right to say, ‘We’re not going to be hurt anymore,’ ” Trombley said. Trombley, a victim of rape at the age of 3, said the police didn’t do anything when her mother reported the rape because the family was Native and on welfare, so her attacker got to walk free. When a person who’s been hurt has the courage to speak up about it, “that effects change.”

Panelist Patti Larsen of AICHO said countries like Sweden are taking the sins of perpetrators public. “They’re putting their pictures on billboards,” Larsen said. “They’re not keeping the secrets anymore.”

Crow agrees we need to put accountability where it belongs, and do it as a community. “Let’s get the pictures of the pimps and johns in the newspaper,” Crow said. In research she had read, men who had been arrested multiple times for battering their partners were asked what would make them stop – an answer that was overwhelmingly, “being held accountable by my community. If my neighbor knew I was doing this, I would be shamed into stopping.”

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While panelists made clear that the the steps to addressing trafficking of Natives in Minnesota are currently limited, it was also clear that conversations are taking place and ideas are forming to keep pushing for retribution for the offenders and rehabilitation for the victims.

Activists like Stark hope to spur action with further research; she will release a report regarding trafficking in the harbor later this year. Resources like the “Garden of Truth” report and another MIWRC 2009 report titled “Shattered Hearts: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of American Indian Women and Girls” [PDF] are helping acquaint the public at large with the intricacies of the issue.

“We as a society need to change the way we think. …We only let things happen because we let things happen,” Sandman said, emphasizing that the issue of trafficking of Native women is one so large, it can no longer be ignored.

“We need all the support that we can get from every angle.”

Rita Kovtun, a journalism student at the University of St. Thomas, is a HECUA intern at MinnPost.