The Big Business of Indian Gaming and Disappearing Indigenous Women and Children

 

This is the sixth in a multi-part series that will chronicle my journey into the world of sex-trafficking and murder in Indian Country and beyond. The first can be read here, the second, third, fourth and fifth. If you’ve already read those, scroll down until the font change. 

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.

I became consciously involved with the subject in September 2017 when I was called by Ancestors to find a young Navajo woman who had been disappeared from the reservation and was believed by a Navajo cop 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 here but there will be solutions offered as the series progresses. 

Recent headlines about sex trafficking operations being interrupted in Florida during a sting in which Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, was arrested for soliciting prostitution and the prosecution’s protection of Jeffery Epstein also in Florida have momentarily brought sex trafficking into the national consciousness. 

Like the #metoo movement, the celebrity names attached to these arrests and outcry inspire brief discussion but there appears to be as little interest in publishing information describing the how the trafficking operation came to be and why it persists, as there is to prosecute the right people. The language remains ‘celebrity busted’ and whatever salacious details that will sell advertising. We, the readers, want the comfortable short-read and then to move on.  “Seventeen Slaves Freed” isn’t the headline that will engage us. It’s so far removed from our collective consciousness that to bring it under the microscope even in a sanitized ‘newsworthy’ manner is more cringe-worthy than sellable. It evokes collective memories and  histories of, at least here in the US, the African slave trade that have yet to be healed. 

On February 26, the 1A.org shared as the lead-in to their discussion about the Kraft-sting, from the New York Times,

that law enforcement “estimated the trafficking ring to be a $20 million international operation” in which “men paid between $100 and $200 for sex.”

We don’t know how many ‘massage parlors’ or other brothels were involved in this sting but according to the NYT article mentioned above, the investigation spanned four counties in Florida and included connections to New York along with the mention that the women involved were from China. However, I’m going to use the two states and $20 million figure to paint a picture.  

Here, I’m also trying to keep in mind the psychologies of ‘too much’–too much information, too many victims, too much distance and too far removed to care–and psychic numbing. Psychic numbing is the phenomenon defined by Paul Slovic where, “as the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases. This happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two….It means that there is no constant value for a human life, that the value of a single life diminishes against the backdrop of a larger tragedy.”

In this case, though, the painted picture is a large tapestry and cannot be contained in a single, small frame. So where I’ll start with my own experience of psychic numbing, $20 million dollars and two states in the US to create a comparison and attempt to work from there. 

In September 2017, I went from Montana to Phoenix, Arizona thinking I was going to find and perhaps rescue one missing Navajo woman. Within a week, that number increased to at least six people–four young adults and two children–and by the end of the fourth month, that single digit had increased into the four digits.  What I’d been brought into wasn’t just a case of one missing woman but multiple hundreds held in captivity to be sold for sex.  

Within days of arriving in Phoenix, using what information there was available to me (and to law enforcement, by the way), I found a pattern in reported missing persons  cases from Arizona and New Mexico. I was certain at least four of the young women who’d been recently disappeared were being held together and, though taken at different times, were set up by the same people. It made no sense to me why law enforcement would ignore my attempts at information sharing and wouldn’t engage with me. At the time, the only reasonable explanation was that of institutionalized racism. I told myself more than once, “They just don’t give too fucks about brown skinned kids.”

That changed the moment I was led to the Talking Stick Resort where I stayed for days, watching. Watching tribal police have congenial conversations with pimps, watching security facilitate sexual rendezvous between prostitutes and buyers, and watching those I’d identified as federal agents watch all of this. I was certain I’d find Ariel there and created a rescue plan that I was ready to put into motion the moment she agreed to leave with me. I practiced, I drilled, I rehearsed, I parked my car strategically, I was ready. 

What I wasn’t ready for was the understanding that what I was witnessing was not isolated, but systemic. When I was first interviewed by the FBI weeks prior to the Talking Stick experience, I was clear in my understanding that this network had been in operation for decades, was run by men and women, centered in the Phoenix area, and involved agreements formalized at Standing Rock that expanded it’s previous reach. What I subsequently learned, in part through the Talking Stick experience, was that my understanding was only the tip of the iceberg and that my involvement began long, long before September 6, 2017. 

This network has indeed been around for decades. When and where it began exactly I can’t say. However, it’s current iteration is a formal partnership between what appears to be the Sinaloa cartel and the National Indian Gaming Association In the United States alone there are 136 class III casinos that are directly involved or indirectly complicit in the prostituting of Indigenous and other women who have been disappeared elsewhere for that specific purpose.  In Canada, First Nations-associated casinos in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario have also been identified.  Other non-native casinos in both countries, managed by a few specific companies, are also participants.  

Let’s come back to the idea of a $20 million sex trafficking operating in two states out of small massage parlors.  We’re going to do some quick extrapolating here with the understanding that math was never my strong suit and we don’t know all the facts.  These 136 casinos are sprinkled across the country so I’ll pick one state, Washington, to work with here. For shits and grins, let’s cut the $20 million in half to $10 because I’m only using one state as an example, not two. There are about thirty Indian casinos in Washington State that have been identified as having direct ties to sexual slavery. Thirty casinos x $10 million. With me so far?  There are other possible factors to consider like the size of 30 casinos, potential number of johns, and their number of bedrooms and ‘client’ turnover compared to the space of a massage parlor but I’m not considering those at this point. Thirty casinos times $10 million dollars = $300,000,000.  Now, this is just supposition based on an idea grounded in little facts. We have no way of knowing how much money is generated through the prostitution of slaves in any one casino or those spanning a state, never mind those spanning over 25 states.  The point here is that there is big money, massive amounts of money wrapped up in the infrastructure of organized crime, and entirely legal gambling.  

The larger point is this:  First Nations and Native American women have been intentionally disappeared for decades from across the continent. Some of their stories are slowly being told and heard. However, those consigned to sexual slavery have largely been missed and the current cries for ‘more awareness’ ignore the open secret in Native communities and the ‘in sight but out of mind’ slavery of indigenous women in indigenous-based gambling establishments. 

This past summer I had a conversation with the CEO of a  management company. His company is based in the US but manages a First Nation’s casino in Manitoba. When I told him this particular casino had been identified as participating in the sexual trafficking of Indigenous women, his immediate response was, “That’s not our ethos.  If you have proof, then….”

No one is going to put in their mission or vision statement or description of entertainment options a reference to the collusion with organized crime or participation in the sexual slavery of kidnapped or trapped women.

However, the proof is on every security camera in each of these casinos. It’s in the stories and institutional knowledge of maintenance, security, and housekeeping and wait staff, croupiers, bartenders, customers and, in the US, federal law enforcement.  So why has it not been addressed? Why hasn’t there been an intervention? Is it because ‘there’s no constant value to human life’? Is it because the problem is too expansive for siloed, compartmentalized law enforcement organizations to competently or efficiently intercede? Is it because it’s ‘just prostitution‘ or ‘they’re just whores‘, ”they’re just Indians’ or ‘they aren’t terrorists‘ or because they have brown skin? Is it because those in the larger non-Native community don’t have enough awareness? If they did, would they become allies? Is it because the reckoning that comes with the acknowledgment of the whole truth is more than most can bear? 

I believe that it is a combination of all of those things and with that understanding a new conversation can emerge. 

 

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Missing and Murdered Native American women and children

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 been disappeared from the reservation and was believed by a Navajo cop 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 here 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.

Within 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: human infants being born into captivity to be used as sexual objects and tools of sexual pleasure for the highest price.

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.