“I’ve been raped my whole life. What else do you want to know?”
A trafficked Anishinaabe woman in her late 50s said this to me during an interview in Duluth. She was 4 the first time she was raped. As one of five women who interviewed 105 Native trafficked women in Minnesota for the report “Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota,” I hear her words reverberate in my mind.
I think of her. I wonder if she is OK. I wonder if she is still alive. I still feel her pain and desperation that began at such a young age and continued through decades of abuse and degradation in prostitution as an adult.
Wondering if she is still alive is not hyperbole. It’s realistic. The United States doesn’t compile the numbers, but a Canadian study found that women and girls who are prostituted have a 40 times higher death rate than those who are not.
A serial killer in Oklahoma has preyed on Native trafficked women. In Minnesota, one woman we were to interview died the day before we were to meet with her. Another trafficked Native woman was killed and her body dumped along Interstate 394 in Minneapolis. She had just turned 18. Murder. Suicide. Drug overdoses. Beatings. Rapes.
Being in prostitution is not pretty, as much of the media suggests. In contrast to the myth that prostitution is a freely chosen profession:
• 92 percent of the women in our study want to escape prostitution, a number similar to other national and international results.
• 98 percent had been or were homeless.
• 79 percent had been sexually abused as girls by an average of four perpetrators.
• 84 percent had been physically assaulted in prostitution.
• 72 percent suffered traumatic brain injuries in prostitution.
• 52 percent had post-traumatic stress disorder, a rate equivalent with combat veterans.
And more than two-thirds had relatives who were in government- and church-sponsored boarding schools, where physical and sexual violence were rampant, resulting in widespread, intergenerational disconnection from Native culture.
Native women are the only group who are predominately assaulted by men outside their race. And in prostitution, the vast majority of pimps and johns are white and African-American. They prey upon the vulnerabilities that exist among Native women due to centuries of systematic racism and sexism.
Another Anishinaabe woman I interviewed in northern Minnesota had just left a domestic violence shelter because her pimp — a white, married father from a wealthy Twin Cities suburb — had badly beaten her. He brought up other white men from the Cities for prostitution weekends with Native women. He paid her bills, including rent and essentials for her children, which she could not afford. He had her role play the racist “Indian maiden” and “European colonizer” myth with him during sex.
Trafficking is not part of traditional Native culture. Traditional Native ways view women as sacred. European men brought the concept of prostitution with them, originally enacting it at logging camps and along waterways. In 1792, Phillip Turner wrote about Anishinaabe Indians who complain about the white men who “stand as Pimps to procure [Indian] women.”
Trafficking of Native women is rampant in northern Minnesota. Native women and teens are coerced and groomed into prostitution through the Internet, gangs, organized crime, hotels, brothels, fishing houses on Lake Mille Lacs and the networks operating out of the North Dakota oil fields.
The Duluth harbor is notorious among Native people as a site for the trafficking of Native women from northern reservations. In an ongoing project focused on the trafficking of Native women on ships in Duluth, it was found that the activity includes international transport of Native women and teens, including First Nation women and girls brought down from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to be sold on the ships and in Duluth and Superior. Native women, teen girls and boys, and even babies have been sold for sex on the ships.
A “john” said to a Native trafficked woman: “I thought we killed all of you.” But they did not. Native people are still here, revitalizing traditional ways so that Native women will once again be treated as sacred.
Christine Stark is the author of “Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation.” She is Anishinaabe and Cherokee.