Sex-Trafficking of Native American Women and Girls

By Meredith Veit

“As a Cherokee, I can attest to the fact that Native Americans have been on the losing side of history. Our rights have been infringed upon, our treaties have been broken, our culture has been stolen, and our tribes have been decimated at the hands of our own United States government.”  
– Markwayne Mullin, United States Politician

Why does this issue need more of our attention?

Since the “discovery” of America, the native populations of the United States have been repressed, silenced and marginalised, and the fetishized, disparaging violence against Native American women and girls remains a serious problem. Gender based violence and the selling of native women were weapons used by the colonisers, and yet, hundreds of years later, lady liberty is still leaving many of the citizens under her purview without protection, justice, or reparations.

Indigenous women are victims of violence at higher rates than any other group with most indigenous women having experienced violence, over half being victims of sexual violence. Though there is a lack of statistical data on human trafficking for this minority group,[1] which is a core issue in itself, there are an increasing number of reports addressing the severity of the problem.

Due to tribal sovereignty and stark jurisdictional gaps, the federal and state governments have demonstrated a laissez-faire attitude towards indigenous affairs. The 1978 Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe Supreme Court case determined that tribal courts do not have criminal jurisdiction over non-tribe members[2], yet many of those living on Native American reservations are not Native American. Seeing the detrimental effects that this had in relation to the increased rate of violence against women, Congress partially retracted this ruling in 2013, clarifying that in cases of domestic violence or dating violence the non-native perpetrator could be tried in tribal courts. This does not, however, include non-natives that temporarily enter indigenous territory and do not have ties with the tribe—which describes the situation of most traffickers.

Native women’s rights are also suppressed by business and industry. Many activist groups believe that casinos are intensifying the demand for sex-trafficking. Co-Chair of the Arizona Human Trafficking Council, Cindy McCain, noted that she had personally witnessed “six little girls lined up against a wall in a casino…on display for customers” (2017). Tribal communities in Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota are at an increased risk of trafficking due to the prevalence of the male-dominated oil industry. Others say that logistical convenience is making trafficking too prevalent, considering many reservations are located along highly frequented borders and international shipping routes.  

If this is such an issue, why isn’t anything being done?

Indigenous women are few in number, making up only 0.7% of the U.S. population, and until 2018, Native American women were not represented in Congress.[3] The first-ever attempt to create a database of all missing and murdered indigenous women & girls was created only in 2018 without the help of the federal government by an intern of the Urban Indian Health Institute, and whilst extensive, it is unfinished. When considering the number of inaccessible, unreported or unsolved cases, there may be as many as 25,000 victims.[4] The connection between these disappearances and homicides in correlation with human trafficking still has yet to be investigated, and there is no national data reflecting how many indigenous women are victims of sex-trafficking.

Negative Stereotyping
Discrimination is one of the overarching causes of inaction and apathy in combating the human trafficking of Native American women. Many activist groups have experienced an institutionalized disregard for the reports of missing women across all levels—from local to national—and assure that racism and stereotypes affect the investigative process from the very start. In the case of Ashley Loring Heavyrunner, a Cheyenne tribe member, the FBI took 8 months to begin searching for the victim, who has yet to be found. Stereotypes that Native Americans are severe alcoholics and tend to run away from home add to the already charged racial stigma they face for merely being people of colour in the United States.

Inequality before the law
The discrimination that indigenous American women face is related to their unequal legal status before the U.S. Constitution. Criminal jurisdiction in “Indian country” is unwarrantedly complicated, and jurisdictional gaps between Native American, municipal, state, and federal territories has left women without legal protection. In order to reinstate justiciability for crimes committed against native women, immense support from all levels within the American political system is needed in order to change jurisdictional oversight, which is a painstakingly complex process.

From an international human rights law perspective, the United States has failed to ratify most international treaties, withdrawn from the Human Rights Council, has no topical ombudsman and does not have any National Human Rights Institutions—making accountability all the more avoidable. The United States has also failed to ratify the additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights; in this sense, Native American women lack justiciability for their rights to humane treatment, right to juridical personality, the right to life, and the right to family. There is a weak legal foundation—nationally, regionally, and internationally—on which to stand due to the United States’ reluctance to submit itself to international human rights conventions.

How can Americans best move forward to protect their fellow Americans?

Even though the current President of the United States is fuelling a wildfire of hate and discrimination against women, minorities, and persons of colour, the US is abundant in civil society organizations with the endurance to keep putting out flames. Native American women fall within all three categories above, and they tend to face additional challenges—such as poverty, lack of access to education, high rates of obesity, etc.—that deepen the significance of their “vulnerable group” classification. More creativity and a strategic manoeuvring of international, regional and local initiatives are needed to push the United States’ government to construct a stronger layer of protection for these women—a metaphorical wall, if the analogy is persuasive enough, made of legal equality, human dignity and security—that will ensure their ability to enjoy a life free from fear of being trafficked.

To start, Americans should pay more attention to Native American and Alaska Native women’s stories. Every American, whether your state has a land reservation or not, should ensure that their representatives are informed about the severity of this issue, and are ready to act towards resolving it. Our debates are much too focused on the intentions of our Founding Fathers, but these women are the decedents of our country’s true founding mothers. They deserve our attention. They deserve their rights.

Meredith has worked for the past few years as a multimedia journalist and a researcher mostly in Africa and the Americas. She holds a BA in Communication & Public Culture from George Washington University and interned for Vice President Joe Biden at the White House in 2015. She is most interested in issues related to press freedom, foster care and adoption reform and indigenous persons’ rights.

[1] During the September 27, 2017 session before the U.S. Congress, Mr.  Jason  Thompson, Acting Deputy Director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the U.S. Department of the Interior, stated that they only had record of 14 cases of human trafficking in the U.S. Native American community, a number that is clearly not exhaustive considering 5,712 unsolved cases of missing Native American women were reported to the National Crime Information Center.

[2] All six of the non-Native American Court Justices that ruled in favor of this decision felt that a trail on Native American territory with a Native American jury would be inherently bias against a non-indigenous defendant (Christofferson 1991).

[3] In the 2018 midterm elections, Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland were the first Native American women to be elected to U.S. Congress.

[4] Lucchesi and Echo-Hawk 2018.