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Human Trafficking Center

A Call for More Research and Awareness on Native American Victims of Human Trafficking


Mar 2016


By: Alexandra Lustig, Research Assistant*

Violence against Native Americans is deeply rooted in a colonial history of oppression. While the U.S. Department of State’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report recognizes that American Indians and Alaska Natives are among the most vulnerable populations to trafficking in the United States, trafficking of Native peoples– specifically labor trafficking– remains largely invisible in scholarship and media.  Also, inconsistent definitions of sex trafficking across studies make it difficult to know its prevalence among Native populations.

While almost all of the research focuses on sex trafficking of Native women and children, men are most likely not exempt and sex trafficking is most likely not the only type of trafficking occurring within Native communities. However, sex trafficking of Native women and girls is currently the most publically acknowledged form of trafficking in Native populations (view news articles here, here and here.).

Trafficking of Native peoples cannot be discussed without an acknowledgement and understanding of the complicated history between Native peoples and colonial settlers.

The Oregon Human Rights Report highlights that the deep wound that “Native Americans have carried since the horrors of colonization [that] has resulted in substance abuse, broken homes, high levels of domestic and sexual abuse, juvenile delinquency and deep internalized pain.” All of these factors, similar to other populations that have faced a long history of oppression, make Native peoples particularly vulnerable to human trafficking.

However, the “deep internalized pain” and the colonization wounds that have not been healed remind social service providers, law enforcement, policy makers and anti- trafficking advocates that Native victims of sex trafficking live at the complex intersection of various forms of oppression.

A look at the current research: Minnesota and Oregon

There is little current research out there on trafficking and Native populations, and almost none of it deals with labor or men.  Differing definitions of “sex trafficking” in state laws make it difficult to know if the studies on sex trafficking are including consensual, adult sex workers- who are not victims of trafficking under federal or international law- in their numbers.  Still, the studies do suggest the sex trafficking of Native women and girls, specifically, is present in the United States.

For example, through the research conducted  by Dr. Pierce and the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center,  insight has been gained into the prostitution and sex trafficking of Native women in Minnesota. In their report, Shattered Hearts, Duluth area advocates reported that “street prostitution is highly visible, particularly when ships are in port and during times of the year when tourism is at its highest, such as hunting season and during the summer.” While it is happening on the street, it is also happening in bars and other local establishments.  For instance:

“The [Native] women are inside the bars and prostitution is happening in the bars…it’s not just the pimps, it’s the establishments that are making money off that girl being in the bar, bringing those patrons in because they know she’s there on Wednesdays. And the young girls that want to drink, they get a fake ID.”

The data collected for the Shattered Hearts report from 95 Native women and girls suggest “that the trafficking of Native girls into prostitution is a significant, though rarely discussed, problem.”

In Oregon, according to the Human Trafficking and Native Peoples in Oregon: A Human Rights Report, “traffickers most often pick up young women on public transit… shopping malls… and online” in metropolitan areas.  There were also some reports that “a trafficker would work with a woman (or girl) to get her into the shelter so she could recruit more girls for the trafficker.”

A Call for More Research  

It is pertinent that more research be done on issues of sex trafficking and labor trafficking of Native populations in the U.S. As Patina Park, Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center said:

“Violence against our earth and water is perpetrated on a daily basis, against those things absolutely vital to our very existence… We can’t be surprised that people who would rape our land are also raping our people. We must do something to stop this from continuing.”

A Native-informed intervention model and lens will be crucial to the production of research and success of programs, policies and organizations. It is important to note that while most of the scholarship focuses on sex trafficking of Native women and children, men are not exempt and sex trafficking is most likely not the only type of trafficking occurring within the Native communities.

Therefore, more peer-reviewed, empirical and secondary research on human trafficking of  Native Americans will help academics, non-profits and other stakeholders better understand the narrative of human trafficking of Native peoples in the United States.

For more information on the trafficking of Native women, HTC and the Center on Rights Development hosted Cinnamon Quale who provided great insight on the subjects of prostitution and trafficking of Native women.

*Alexandra Lustig is an International Human Rights student at the University of Denver. It is important to recognize that she is a non-Native, Caucasian woman who does not identify with the Native culture or identity. She is particularly interested in forced labor and human trafficking.

Photo Credit: Alex Bruda


About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.

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