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Human Trafficking Center

Disproportionate Impacts of Human Trafficking on Native Communities


Feb 2017



By Victoria Sweet, JD – Guest Blogger*

Although attention to human trafficking has grown in recent years, it has affected marginalized populations throughout history. Trafficking has impacted Native communities for centuries, since the earliest point of contact with Europeans. According to journal accounts, Christopher Columbus engaged in the exploitation of Indigenous people, including providing Indigenous women and girls for his crew, and tolerating rape and other atrocities.

In an article documenting the history and describing lingering effects of historical attitudes and behaviors, legal scholar Sarah Deer wrote “[t]oday, the eroticized image of Indian women is so commonplace in our society that it is unremarkable – the image of a hypersexual Indian woman continues to be used to market any number of products and ideas.”  Until this discriminatory image is addressed and attitudes change, trafficking is likely to continue to disproportionately affect Native women.

Lack of Empirical Data

While many studies provide statistics on other forms of violence, little empirical human trafficking data exists. The reasons for this vary. Many trafficking victims do not identify themselves as victims. They suffer from fear, shame and distrust of law enforcement. It is not unusual for trafficking victims to develop bonds with their traffickers because of the manipulative nature of this crime. However, data and research from related studies suggest that human trafficking may likely not only affect Native women and girls, but also disproportionately impact them.

Risk Factors

It has been estimated that 50-80 percent of identified trafficking victims are or have been involved with child welfare services at some point. Additional risk factors include: poverty; limited education; lack of work opportunities; homelessness; being an orphaned, runaway, or “thrown away” youth; history of previous sexual abuse; physical, emotional, or mental health challenges; drug or alcohol addiction; posttraumatic stress disorder; multiple arrests; and a history of truancy or being expelled from school.

The above risk factors can be magnified in Native communities. According to the most recent data available, “Native American children are overrepresented [in foster care] at a rate that is 2.7 times their rate in the general population” and as many as 40 percent of Native children and youth live in poverty. The same factors which contribute to the marginalization of Native youth in society as a whole, also contribute to their heightened vulnerability to human trafficking.

Native communities also experience an additional layer of risk from intergenerational trauma patterns associated with the history of tribal relocations, boarding schools, and large-scale adoptions of Native children.  These unique historical experiences have increased the likelihood that Native women and girls will encounter situations of exploitation at some point in their lives.

Commercial Sex Trade Data

A review of community impact data taken from four formal studies demonstrates the disproportionate impact the commercial sex trade has on indigenous communities in both the U.S. and Canada. In Hennepin County, Minnesota, roughly 25 percent of the women arrested for prostitution identified as American Indian while American Indians comprise only 2.2 percent of the total population. In Anchorage, Alaska, 33 percent of the women arrested for prostitution were Alaska Native, but Alaska Natives make up only 7.9 percent of the population. Canadian studies show similar results. In Winnipeg, 50 percent of adult sex workers were defined as Aboriginal, while Aboriginal peoples comprise only 10 percent of the population and 52 percent of the women involved in the commercial sex trade in Vancouver were identified as First Nations, while First Nations people comprise only 7 percent of the general population.

Although many individuals involved in prostitution are not victims of sex trafficking, it is telling that Native women are so disproportionately represented among the population.  It is necessary to examine what leads these women to this work and whether they have any other viable opportunities for economic advancement within their communities.


Native women and girls may continue to be disproportionately impacted by human trafficking as long as society continues to embrace hyper sexualized and degrading images of Native women, and intergenerational traumatic patterns are not effectively addressed. Mitigating these risks begins with education and awareness.

Efforts should also address the need for rehabilitative services like long term housing and job training, and for more research to assist policymakers in understanding the impact trafficking has on Native communities and off reservation community members. Steps need to be taken to plan for the future and mitigate risk to end the cycle of abuse and exploitation.


*Victoria Sweet is a Program Attorney for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

Photo via Pixabay

The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC


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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