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Human Trafficking: From Awareness to Action

By Michelle Sauve, Senior Project Consultant, Administration for Native Americans

Image of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center logo that shows a multicolored flower with the center's name around it.This week I had the honor to represent ACF and the Administration for Native Americans at a listening session on human trafficking of American Indian and Alaska Natives led by the U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and hosted by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.  About 20 of us gathered to talk about how youth and adults are being exploited and to address what Ambassador CdeBaca called the “zones of impunity” that allow traffickers to exploit individuals through sex or labor trafficking and escape detection and/or prosecution.

Indian Country has a lot of experience with “zones of impunity” which is why advocates have fought so long and hard to close loopholes in the justice system with the Tribal Law and Order Act and the recently amended Violence Against Women Act.  So it is no surprise that many of these same loopholes enable criminals to victimize our people with little fear of repercussion, either because of the lack of local law enforcement, or too few law enforcement resources to meet the needs. 

Many of the service providers present at the listening session work directly with victims of trafficking and some of the concerns shared are the lack of resources to address the various social service needs of the victims. Everything from housing, long-term counseling and culturally relevant healing resources, substance abuse treatment, viable economic alternatives,  to victim advocates that can help victims feel safe disclosing and trusting that they will not be risking incriminating themselves.

From awareness…

Advocates are concerned that there are systemic and decades long issues around recognizing human trafficking, especially sex trafficking for what it is.  Many parts of an economy are complicit from casinos, to ships, to hotels as locations where trafficking occurs, to cab drivers as the go-between that can show an out-of-towner where to go to buy sex.  Raising public awareness about the harm caused physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to the victims as well as changing the stigma attached to the victims are important first steps. 

To action…

Staff from the program Oskinigiikwe (young woman in the Ojibwe language), serving girls age 11 to 21 at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center had a recent success with their Community S.T.R.O.N.G. (Supporting Traditional Respect of Native Girls) events.  It started with the elders, as Eileen Hudon, a member of the Elder’s Lodge in St. Paul, explained.  The elders were concerned about the aggressive sex buyers surrounding the American Indian neighborhood of Minneapolis (near where the MIWRC is located).  So they met with the young women’s group, to see what they could do, from there they decided to involve other girls groups from across the city, and for the next gathering they invited young professional men they felt they could count on as community support in times of need, and finally the fourth gathering was a four hour session that involved roundtable discussion with the Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Metro transit Police Chiefs and others to talk about the safety concerns of the young girls.  Many members of the urban community also attended to bring their voice/experience and concerns forward.

In response to this last Community STRONG event, the Metro Transit Police will conduct training for all of their bus and light rail drivers. According to Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington, the training will instruct all systems’ drivers how to spot sexual harassment activities up to and including sex trafficking recruitment. “It had to start with the elders, Eileen said, because it is the adult’s responsibility to ensure that our children are safe.”

The bottom line is there are too few resources currently available to meet all of the needs, but our task that day was not only to identify those needs, but to think about how we can stretch the resources we have amongst the various federal agencies and identify other partners we can work with to bridge some of these gaps, some of those ideas will eventually become part of the federal strategic plan.  However, in the present, the leader of the young women’s group had a message to share from the girls for all of us, it was a question, “what are you doing in your daily life that makes our life better?”  What indeed.

For more about what you can do to end human trafficking, please visit the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

Participants included Ambassador Luis CdeBaca and Mary Ellison, in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, staff from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and service providers working with the Minnesota American Indian and Alaska Native community (Minneapolis American Indian Center, the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches’ Division of Indian Work, Ain Dah Yung). National organizations present were the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, authors of two important research reports on AIAN human trafficking, “In the Garden of Truth” and “Shattered Hearts” and survivors of sex trafficking.

Michelle Sauve, a member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribes, works on interagency efforts to improve the lives of Native Americans for the Administration for Native Americans.

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