Three decades ago, the relatives of an eleven-year-old Native girl in Minnesota forced her to have sex with a man in exchange for alcohol. The story was not front-page news. It was not the subject of a feature-length film with a happy ending. No one intervened. But when she turned eighteen, the police started paying attention. She was arrested and convicted over twenty times for prostitution. Her parents’ addiction became her own, and she entered treatment dozens of times.
At an early age, the girl became one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Native American children and women forced into prostitution in Minnesota, falling under the radar of social services, the community, and the media.
“If it was a bunch of white, blonde hair, blue-eyed girls, believe me,
there would be an end to this,” said Vednita Carter, executive director
of Breaking Free, a St. Paul-based nonprofit serving women involved in
In September, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center became the
first organization in the state to release a report about the
widespread trafficking of Native women. The agency hopes its effort
will draw attention and funding to Native victims of sexual
Advocates say the report’s findings cast little doubt that the
situation has already become a crisis. In a sample of 95 Native women
seeking services from the resource center, 40 percent reported being
the victims of commercial sexual exploitation.
Sixty percent of the women surveyed entered prostitution or pornography
before the age of 18. And about one-fifth had been sexually exploited
before their thirteenth birthday. When the girls become adults, the
exploitation often continues. They remain in prostitution, but the law
often no longer views them as victims, but as criminals.
The 126-page report, called Shattered Hearts, written by esearch
scientist Alexandra Pierce, focuses on women who live outside of
reservations. The report compiles statistics, identifies flaws in the
legal system, draws parallels to the historic exploitation of Native
people, and makes dozens of suggestions about how to address the
problem. Pierce incorporated the Resource Center’s own studies,
interviews with social service workers, and available government data.
“To me, it’s an emotional issue; it’s a financial issue; it’s a justice
issue; it’s a human rights issue,” said Suzanne Koepplinger, the
Resource Center’s executive director.
Although the legal system treats prostitution and trafficking
differently, the report often uses the terms interchangeably, as many
advocates believe that prostitution can never be considered fully
consensual. The prostituted woman is the true victim of the crime, they
“There’s a general acceptance that prostitution is a lifestyle choice,
when it’s actually a federal crime against women,” Koepplinger said.
The report found that Native women have been disproportionally impacted
by sexual exploitation. For example, Native American women make up
about 25 percent of all women on probation in Hennepin County for
prostitution-related offenses, according to data from 2007. But Native
women represent only 2.2 percent of the county’s population.
Past treatment of Indian women
Some of the reasons for the staggering numbers are clear. Native
Americans have the state’s highest rates of homelessness, poverty, and
alcoholism – what many call the legacy of hundreds of years of
colonialism. But the report also argues that generational trauma plays
a role. White settlers repeatedly raped, tortured, and murdered Native
women over hundreds of years, treating their bodies as disposable and
In one account from the 1860s, a white rancher describes a government
attack on the Cheyenne: “I heard one man say that he had cut out a
woman’s private parts and had them for exhibition on a stick…I also
heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts
of females and stretched them over the saddle-bows and wore them over
their hats while riding in the ranks.”
Other more recent practices, including the involuntary sterilization of
Native women and the Indian Adoption Project (which removed Native
children from their homes), added to the collective trauma, the report
“There’s been so much violence and destruction of families because of
colonization,” said Nicole Matthews, executive director of the
Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition.
In Minnesota, advocates say that Native women have been prostituted
onto ships in the Duluth harbor for generations, although local law
enforcement say that they have not noticed any trafficking since harbor
security was ramped up after 9/11.
“Girls have conversations with their mothers about their time, when the
mothers were working on the boats,” one advocate said during a
round-table discussion conducted as part of the report. “Many of the
girls were conceived out of working on the boats.”
These historical experiences leave Native women psychologically
vulnerable to exploitation, the report says. Once women enter into
prostitution, they are less likely to ask for help, as violence against
women may seem normal.
Sexual exploitation in the Native community
Advocates say that many Native communities have also normalized sexual
exploitation. Although data is limited, the fact that Native women are
often exploited in childhood suggests that Native men play a
significant role in their abuse. In many close-knit Native communities,
women may have difficulty speaking out.
“It’s a very difficult issue because it’s a very painful issue,” Koepplinger said. “But not talking about it hasn’t helped us.”
An advocate who was interviewed anonymously as part of the report said
that when she has tried to talk about sexual violence with members of
her Native community, “Some of the elders don’t appreciate that.”
Another participants agreed, saying, “Oh, I know, I know. I was ‘that nasty girl who talks nasty.’”
Criminalization of victims
If the girls don’t find help before they turn eighteen, the legal
system takes over, often criminalizes their abuse, and fails to
effectively stop sex trafficking, advocates say. But disagreement
exists among both advocates and law enforcement about the best
“Police get a hold of them first,” said Linda Miller, executive
director of Civil Society, a non-profit that provides legal and other
assistance to trafficking victims. “They’ve declared that they’re not
going to look beneath the surface.”
But St. Paul Police spokesperson Paul Schnell points to the federally
funded Gerald D. Vick Human Trafficking Task Force, a police-led effort
to coordinate services for victims of trafficking. The police
department trains officers to recognize signs of human trafficking when
they approach criminal situations.
However, many women are distrustful of law enforcement, and Schnell
acknowledges that police officers frequently arrest women engaged in
“In the moment, a case may become a case, “ he said. “But over the
course of time and doing that investigation via prosecution or defense
counsel, there are different places where there can be interventions to
address the trafficking issues.”
Carter, of Breaking Free, said that St. Paul police officers have been
increasingly receptive to treating prostitutes as victims. More police
officers are bringing women directly to Breaking Free instead of jail,
Nonetheless, arrests continue, and advocates say that a prostitution
conviction – or even an arrest – can prevent a woman from ever having a
decent job or housing.
“Not many women want to spend the rest of their lives saying that they engaged in prostitution,” Miller said.
Trafficking laws in minnesota
Minnesota law does provide some additional legal protection to victims
of sex trafficking. While the federal definition of trafficking
requires that traffickers use “force, fraud, or coercion,” state laws
say that a person can never consent to being sexually exploited. Under
state law, anyone who had been prostituted by others is considered a
In May 2009, the Minnesota legislature unanimously passed an amendment
to the state’s sex trafficking law. The amendment allows prosecutors to
give sex traffickers higher penalties when the offender repeatedly
traffics victims into prostitution, where bodily harm is inflicted,
where an individual is held more than 180 days, or where more than one
victim is involved. The amendment also categorizes sex trafficking as a
“crime of violence,” which prohibits traffickers from owning firearms.
As of late October, prosecutors have not convicted any traffickers
under the amended bill. Advocates say the lack of prosecution is not
surprising. It’s a lot easier to arrest the prostitute on the street
than investigate what could be a larger, more organized business, they
But sometimes, despite massive investigative efforts, trafficking cases
fall apart. Deputy Chief John Beyer, of the Duluth Police Department,
said that investigators spent hundreds of hours working on a case in
2000, involving two Native girls being trafficked onto boats in the
Duluth harbor. The officers even obtained video footage that showed the
girls going onto the boats.
Beyer said the case fell apart when the girls stopped cooperating with
law enforcement’s efforts to prosecute the case. “That was really
frustrating for all of us” he said. “We really wanted to go after those
Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner says her office has not seen any
cases involving the trafficking of Native women in recent years.
However, she says that the lack of cases does not mean that trafficking
does not exist, but that women face barriers to reporting their abuse.
“In my mind as a prosecutor, the barrier is not the language of the
statutes,” she said. “The real barrier is the lack of reports and the
lack of awareness by system’s personnel,” including health care
providers and teachers.
Punishing the victims
Many advocates say that law enforcement needs to address not only the
traffickers, but also the individual men who pay for sex. Carter, of
Breaking Free, said she believes that the men should receive felony
convictions as a deterrent.
“We believe it’s about supply and demand,” she said. “And there’s so
much focus on the supply, which is the women. The demand is the men who
buy them. That’s what keeps prostitution thriving is the demand.”
Breaking Free runs a monthly program for men convicted of soliciting a
prostitute, and Carter says the program has had some success. Out of
about 400 male participants, only a handful have been re-arrested. But
she cautioned that this might not reflect the true reality. Men may
just work harder to avoid detection, she said.
On the victim’s side, advocates say that women have little incentive to
come forward and share their stories. Few services exist for victims of
trafficking. The situation is often parallel to that of domestic
violence victims. Without adequate support, leaving the situation could
place women at greater risk of violence, including murder, advocates
Programs like Breaking Free, Women of Nations, the Minnesota Indian
Women’s Resource Center, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault
Coalition, the American Indian Community Housing Organization in
Duluth, and others are trying to address the problem, but advocates say
that a lack of funding for housing prevents many women from coming
“Why would we want to put a woman through that if nothing’s going to
happen?” said Matthews. “You’re kind of opening the wound without doing
anything about it.”
The Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center runs an emergency shelter
program for women, but they had to turn away 50 women and children last
year. About 150 women are on the agency’s waiting list for supportive
The report also recommends other measures, including: raising awareness
of the problem, increasing criminal penalties for purchasers of sexual
services, training health care workers and others to identify signs of
sex trafficking, and providing job opportunities for victims of
Although advocates are quick to point out that sexual exploitation is
not unique to Native communities, they say that Native people need to
take some responsibility for addressing the situation. The first step,
they say, is ending the silence that exists in many close-knit Native
“If enough people in the community say this is a problem, then we can get something done,” Koepplinger said.
Advocates emphasize that Native people can also draw on specific
cultural strengths to confront the problem. For example, the American
Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth holds traditional
full-moon ceremonies every month to help women begin to heal and
recover from their experiences.
“It’s important to provide a safe space where they can feel comfortable
saying that I don’t want this to happen to my daughter,” said Sherry
Sanchez-Tibbets, the agency’s executive director.
Meanwhile, advocates say they hope that agencies will collect more data, which could be used to secure badly needed funding.
As part of this initiative, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault
Coalition recently began a project to interview Native victims to learn
more about their struggles, and to ask the women for input about what
services would be useful.
The agency hopes to interview 100 women by February, and intends to
hold a community feast to celebrate the project. Plans are also in the
works to create a quilt in honor of the women and to publicize the
Koepplinger stresses that her agency’s report is just the first step to
identify and begin to more fully address the problem. “I’m not naive
enough to think we can do this in the next two years, but we have to
start somewhere,” she said.
In the meantime, every day Native woman are being prostituted in
Minnesota. The story of the woman who was sold into prostitution at age
eleven demonstrates the challenges of intervention.
The woman did not connect with social services until her mid-‘40s. By
that time, she was entrenched in a cycle of violence. Civil Society has
provided her with emergency help several times over the past few years,
but she faces limited options.
Right now, she is once again in treatment for alcoholism, and Miller,
of Civil Society, said she still hopes the woman can create a healthy
life for herself. But, she added, “Her story, and the other victims we
see, are just the tip of the iceberg.”
*** To read the full Shattered Hearts report , see: www.miwrc.org .
If you are being prostituted, sexual exploited, or trafficked, there are agencies that can help you. Here are several:
• Breaking Free: 651-645-6557
• MN Indian Women’s Resource Center: 612-728-2000
• MN Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition: 651-646-4800
• Civil Society: 1-888-772-3324 (toll-free) or 651-291-8810