This is the first in a multi-part series that will chronicle my journey into the world of sex-trafficking and murder in Indian Country and beyond.
Headlines, hashtags, and public service announcements don’t provide a way to explore the nuances, relationships and historical responsibilities involved in the discussion and eradication of the trafficking of vulnerable Native American children and women for sexual exploitation. I hope this series does that and more. This first part is something of an overview and will be built upon in following posts. Although my focus is on the disappearance of Indigenous women and children across North America, what I talk about here is nearly a template for the how sex trafficking networks operate around the globe.
I became consciously involved with the subject in September 2017 when I was called by Ancestors to find a young Navajo woman who had disappeared from the reservation and was believed to be in the Phoenix Metro area. I didn’t know it at the time but finding a body dump on the same reservation in 2014 and my presence at Standing Rock in 2016 laid the groundwork for me to walk into a multinational sex-trafficking operation with connections that span 45 countries. Telling how this story unfolds requires discussion of history and the repercussion arisen out of it, trauma experienced and held by peoples and the natural world, realities of misogyny, sexuality, institutionalized racism, the reemergence of what I call ‘the medicine way’ and where all those things converge in our current era. There will be no naming and shaming but there will be solutions offered.
Recent headlines in a Montana newspaper have read “The Dead Cannot Cry Out for Justice” and “Montana Legislature to take up bills addressing Missing, Murdered Women” as well as others highlighting Montana Senators Daines’ and Tester’s support of the passage of Savannah’s Act, a bill sponsored by Heidi Heitkamp at the National level to address the same.
In each of the stories is a common lament that governments, tribal and national, don’t have enough money to fuel the data gathering that will show, perhaps, the prevalence of the issue and more beyond the scope of anecdote presumably allowing said governments to ‘do something’ about the problem.
I’ll not dispute that data is important. It is often vitally important. I will dispute that this problem is not going to go away because gavels are pounded and supportive votes counted. Additional layers of bureaucracy like the establishment of a ‘missing persons specialist’ in the case of one Montana suggestion or creation of new technological tools, will do nothing to stem the tide. And, in my opinion, neither will data. In fact, my fear is that if those things come to fruition, past and future victims will be caught in the additional stagnation of, “See! We’re doing something!” when in fact, while ‘things’ are being done, the cause of the issue is not addressed and it continues.
There are available systems in place currently for local, tribal and national law enforcement use. They are not systemically or regularly used for any number of reasons that have little to do with funding. They have a lot to do with the lack of political will, also for a number of reasons.
One of those, an issue that I will not address in full here is that we, as a general global society, do not like women enough, particularly women of color and poverty, to make them a priority (unless, of course, we want to control their bodily autonomy, clitorises, uteri, religious practices, sexual or general self-expression). In November, the Washington Post shared the 2018 United Nations report on Gender-Related Killing of Women and Girls , adding: “The U.N. report was released to coincide with its International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, a campaign to raise awareness of gender-based violence and its global prevalence.” In the US, it wasn’t until 1994 that the Violence Against Women Act was initially passed and since then violence against women has largely been unaffected. Even the passage of the initial act was stalled because we (via our elected leaders) didn’t want tribal courts to be able to prosecute white men who assaulted, raped or murdered Native American women on reservations. Even now, the arguments made against justice being served in that way continue.
Louise Erdich had this to say about VAWA in 2013:
Tribal courts had such jurisdiction until 1978, when the Supreme Court ruled that they did not have inherent jurisdiction to try non-Indians without specific authorization from Congress. The Senate bill would restore limited jurisdiction over non-Indians suspected of perpetrating sex crimes, but even this unnerves some officials. “You’ve got to have a jury that is a reflection of society as a whole, and on an Indian reservation, it’s going to be made up of Indians, right?” said Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “So the non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial.”…
From Johnathan Capeheart at the Post celebrating VAWA’s re-passage in 2013: “The law that perverted justice in favor of rapists and murderers is now back in balance.” Bless him and his idealism but there is no balance and little justice, especially for Indian Country’s women.
(Of note, the Violence Against Women Act was allowed to expire when the federal government shut down nearly three weeks ago. You can learn more about VAWA here. Note that none of the measures of effectiveness include the lowering of violent acts against women despite the lower rates of overall violent crime.)
While romanticized versions and visions of the Indian maiden tend to be favored by the larger American population, the reality is different. Out of sight and out of mind is how the reservation system was designed and, in many cases, the desire of the colonizing government was that ‘those Indians’ kill each other off or otherwise die. It’s the continued and prevailing attitude in many communities, even those neighboring reservations, where it’s acceptable for high schoolers to openly say in class, “We should have just killed them all off” and for otherwise kind church ladies who shop and worship with brown skinned kin to say, “We don’t have Indians around here”–five miles from the reservation boundary.
One of the more heart-wrenching aspects of the phenomenon of the violence against women in Indian country is that they aren’t valued there either. While the Grandmother is lauded and loved, before (and if) she lives old enough to enjoy her grandchildren, she likely faces the excruciating reality of sexual abuse as a child and as a young woman at a rate of 2.5 times greater than that of any other ethnic group in the US. Even when I view the sexual violence against Native American women in terms of historical trauma and internalized communal oppression, I always come back to the very clear choices made and thought processes followed when a child’s thighs or buttocks are first parted by an adult. Then done so again and again. The wounds created at the first occurrence and deepened by the following, set the stage for why women in Native communities are repeatedly victimized, seek solace in substance abuse and suicide, and are easily disappeared and die at the hands of family.
While I’ll not address murder at the hands of domestic partners and family members here, the connections to their disappearances and sexual trafficking of them are parallel and often entwined.
The slave trade was alive and thriving when the Spanish arrived to plunder the North American continent. Tribes stole, traded and sold humans for labor and sex across what is now Canada, the United States and Mexico. Modern roads and mores may have been laid along the ancient trade routes since but the practice continues today. Stealthily, using social media, desperation, hope, and extortion, young people, primarily female, are hunted, baited and trapped across reserves from as far North as Alaska and the Northern Territories, across the urban and desert landscapes of the US, Canada, and Mexico. Targeted by pimps and wholesalers, they are stolen, brokered and locked into an entrenched, dangerous system that isn’t designed to let them out alive.
This system is profit driven, supported by many and cannot be legislated or enforced away. It is profitable enough that entrepreneurs have decided that working with breeding pairs (yes, humans, not rabbits) will lower their risk of being caught even further. Think of that for a minute: infants being born into captivity to be used as sexual objects and tools of pleasure.
Legislation will not help current or potential future victims become safer, in part, because those creating the laws are active participants in a system that perpetuates it. Respected tribal leadership, from governors and chiefs to those of the medicine way, judges and physicians, teachers and priests, men and women, select, broker, sell and buy from those within an organized crime syndicate to further their own greed. Others are tacitly complicit by remaining silent, accepting monies while not asking where that cash comes from and both groups participate in board meetings and conferences expressing their concern about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, stand in prayer at vigils and make public statements of support for families and the need to ‘do something’.
Yet more, key Native women in positions of formal and informal power, appear to live in a fear that I cannot adequately honor but when approached with truth and requests for help, they either ignore or, as one of the legislators in Montana did, suggest things like “Just write a novel. Even if you change their names, those people (in leadership) will know you’re talking about them.” I did not point out the contradiction between that statement and the one she made deriding the historic writings of white colonizers who’d repeatedly distorted the truths of Indian reality, including changing their names.
Across the continent, those in tribal leadership who are involved with the sex trafficking of women and children are joined by others elected to represent constituents in the broader community. In state, provincial and federal houses of government and courthouses across the continent, senators, representatives, jurists and the staff that support those in seats of power not only buy sex from imprisoned Native women, but work in partnership with organized crime to perpetuate the flow of pain and fear.
There are hundreds of laws across the continent that make it illegal to sexually molest children, rape girls and women, or assault them yet it happens to many every day. In addition to laws, norms and mores within communities, make it clear these kinds of behaviors are not acceptable yet those same behaviors continue unabated. More awareness of the actions and increased consequences has not changed the fact that women and girls are regularly and repeatedly raped and assaulted. And, according to those who work within Native communities, it has become it’s own norm. Sexual and other assault of female infants, toddlers, adolescents and women as a normal and expected occurrence. This fact is a critical piece in the foundation of sex trafficking across Indian Country.
The sexual trafficking of Native women and children cannot be enforced away when BIA officers openly pimp and pay girls on reservations, tribal police regularly supplement their salaries by the same cartel that Customs and Border Patrol officers hold the border doors open for, local sheriff’s deputies and state patrol officers coordinate transportation and the security of transfer points. These factors combined with the disinterest by federal law enforcement agencies point to the lack of political will, not financial resources. Or, said in a different way, the financial resources that are available–via the criminal networks–create the interest and will to perpetuate the system, not dismantle it.
This is an open secret in many Native communities. Often the hunters and brokers and pimps are known and operate visibly. They are known to approach people directly and offer to buy their children. There are parents willing to sell their children after being sold themselves a dream for them of a new life of abundance and opportunity, to fuel addictions, or being extorted into the act. And there are lawyers available to facilitate the process ‘legally’.
The above is not to diminish the reality and power of ‘the bribe or bullet’. That is part and parcel of cartel-driven operations. However, there are many, many hands plucking from the proverbial pie and not all of them face death if they choose not to send children and women to be fucked to death. Because that, too, is part and parcel of this system–that’s what it is designed to do, to generate money through each sexual act, live or recorded until the body can perform no more and when it can no longer be used sexually, it’s parts are sold for one last hit of profit. There is no escape. For a few, there may be the capacity to survive and opportunity to rise within the structure in a way that allows freedom to be felt again. But for thousands that has not happened.
In next post, I will share more about the glue that binds legislators and law enforcement together–the business end–and the role Standing Rock played in bringing it all together.
The dead do cry out for justice. Those alive pray for release. Their prayers been heard.