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Tribal Leaders Meet in Denver to Discuss Realities of Sexual Violence and Human Trafficking

By Nancy Thoma Groetken, Regional Administrator, ACF Region VII

Human Trafficking –they were just two words on the April 7th agenda at the Region 7 and 8 HHS Tribal Consultation in Denver.  Along with ACF Regional Administrator Tom Sullivan, I had initially hoped to take a national priority to Indian Country so we could listen and learn how human trafficking affects Native communities.  However, by the end of the hour, the session provided a real and unique look into the dynamic conditions within Tribal communities. What we heard made such an impact on me that I feel obligated to share the experience.ACF Regional Administrators Tom Sullivan and Nancy Thoma Groetken attend a HHS Tribal Consultation in Denver.

One by one Tribal leaders spoke. These leaders carry a serious responsibility to represent their people, manage their governments and serve their communities. They spoke about their Tribe, their Nation, their families and their histories. Each told of their Tribe’s realities relating to sexual exploitation, prostitution, rape, and violence against women and children. As they spoke, it also became clear that these issues could not be separated from each Tribe’s individual histories and unique circumstances. These leaders expressed serious fears, stories of strength, and asked for help and understanding as they work for their children, their children’s children and their brothers and sisters across Indian Country.

As a student of American history, I considered what I know about the historical trauma these communities experienced through colonization, war, boarding schools and forced assimilation. Just think, under U.S. policy not too long ago, these tribes were wards of the government under the control of the U.S. Department of War. This history combined with a lack of adequate services, funding and resources helped me understand why the impacts on these communities has been so harsh.
One area where Tribal concerns are at fever pitch is the Bakken area of North Dakota. The area’s oil fields are a rich resource for the U.S., reducing dependency on foreign oil. Almost overnight, this industry brought thousands of laborers to this remote area. Money is changing hands – lots of money. Some Tribal members look for ways to share in the new wealth, especially since their communities historically offered limited economic opportunity. The convergence of strangers with tight-knit Tribal communities, and wealth with poverty, plus a migration of laborers to the area resulting in a ratio of 70:1 men to women in the rural communities around the “man camps” is creating a perfect storm of trafficking in sex and drugs.

I heard organized drug trafficking has penetrated Indian Country. Dealers are using and exploiting women as they bring in meth, heroin and other illegal drugs, and creating addicts in their wake. With so few resources to address crime, and treat mental health and substance abuse, a highly dangerous pattern of living and dying young shrouds many reservations. 

It has been well documented that the sex trade and drug trafficking are interrelated. Those who spoke shared stories of drug and alcohol fueled rape, children being trafficked by relatives in exchange for money and drugs, and women prostituting themselves for meth. Other impacts of the sex and drug trade on Indian Country I heard include drug-addicted newborns, the explosion of STD rates, high rates of Hepatitis C, life expectancy rates between 51-55, and the disproportionally high incidence of rape and violence against American Indian women. 

I heard rape often goes unreported in the remote reservations within the regions. I thought of reasons rape is not reported -- feelings of shame, fear of retaliation, or silence to protect the attacker. However, as I listened I came to learn that in some remote Tribal communities a woman might have to travel over 100 miles one-way to the nearest hospital or ER to have a rape kit done at night or on a weekend. This is not a typical barrier.

There were requests and recommendations, too.

  • Coordinate at all government levels to address jurisdictional problems in law enforcement
  • Provide funding for costs of bringing trafficker to justice
  • Wrap services around victims to help them recover
  • Provide access to training for Tribal members in health and behavioral health fields
  • Provide funding for traditional healing practices

The five-year Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services to Victims of Human Trafficking was released in January 2014 with a vision “… that every victim of human trafficking is identified and provided access to the services they need to recover and to rebuild their lives…”  To see a copy of the five-year plan click here:

Sex trafficking is happening in the United States, and it is happening in Indian Country. This does not have to be our children’s future -- it is imperative to act to stem the tide.

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