Native fashion designers joined the fight against sex trafficking. Shoes by Helen Oro.

‘My Body Is Not for Sale’: Fashion Fights Sex-Trafficking

Mary Annette Pember

The air in the worn hotel-conference-room-turned-dressing-room was electric with a sweaty mixture of fear, hope and anticipation. A climate such as this could only be generated by the young and hungry. Young Native men and women buzzed in a frenzy of hairspray and backcombing as they prepared to live the dream: to walk a catwalk in designer clothing.

The young men pushed each other playfully, laughing and nervously pretending not to care while the young women practiced walking in impossibly tall high heels. They wavered on unsteady colt legs, studying their reflections, their eyes betraying a cocktail of bravado and doubt that was heartbreaking.

In the end, however, there was neither doubt nor fear. Those young folks strutted bravely down the catwalk. Staring straight ahead, they worked it all – the hair, the clothes and the shoes. Just before that final turn, however, they defiantly held up signs reading, “My body is not for sale,” “My body is sacred,” and “Break the Silence.”

This show was about far more than fashion – it was about bringing awareness to the dangers of sex trafficking and the threat it poses for Native communities.

The Clothed in Strength, Honor and Beauty Conference on Human Trafficking and Fashion Show in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in September included presentations, workshops and panel discussions aimed at educating youth about the dangers of sex trafficking (including how traffickers use the internet to lure victims), as well as providing tips and guidance about safely entering the fashion industry as a model or designer.

According to co-organizers Lisa Heth, executive director of Wiconi Wawokiya a non-profit victim services organization based on the Crow Creek Reservation, and Gina Still Smoking, a Lakota/Blackfeet fashion designer, traffickers have been known to pose as fashion designers, photographers or talent agents on social media sites in order to lure young people into prostitution.

According to the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center’s Shattered Hearts report, pimps have been known to lure Native girls away from rural reservations into prostitution with promises of modeling or dancing jobs in cities.

“Recent data suggest that sex trafficking is on the rise with Native American women, Heth said.

Although there is a dearth of data regarding sex trafficking victims, recent studies in Hennepin County, Minnesota revealed that although Native peoples comprise only 2.2 percent of the population, roughly 25 percent of people arrested for prostitution were Native.

RELATED: Trafficking in Native Communities

“I wanted to present a conference that would include more than the standard panels and workshops about the dangers of sex trafficking; I wanted to create an event that would appeal to our young people, the ones who fall victim to traffickers,” Heth said.

She collaborated with Still Smoking to create an event that would not only present information about sex trafficking but would also offer an opportunity to model for Native designers, to learn how to walk a catwalk and get a taste of the fashion world in a supportive safe environment aimed at building confidence and self respect.

Using her networking skills, Still Smoking brought in eight designers (including herself) from the U.S. and Canada, including Devon Fiddler of SheNative, Sarah Weston of Jewelry by Sarah Weston, Cher Thomas of Cher Thomas Designs, Sabrina Seaton of Nanabah Navajo, MaryLou Mintram of LittleBowtihk, Sun Rose Iron Shell of Warrior Status Fashions, Helen Oro of Helen Oro Designs and Jolonzo Goldtooth of JG Indie.

During a panel discussion, the designers described legitimate methods of recruiting fashion models as well as warning signs for would-be models. “Designers want to see photos of candidates who are fully clothed. Any requests for bikini or nude shots should be considered a red flag that the recruiter is not really a fashion designer,” Oro of Helen Oro Designs noted.

The designers agreed that they typically like to see a headshot of models without make-up and a full-length photo depicting the candidate in clothing that shows the shape of the body, such as yoga pants and a simple tank top.

Promises of all-expenses-paid travel and high salaries are also warning signs. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Still Smoking added.

Conversely, designers or would be employers asking for expensive photos that they would provide or insisting on payment for modeling lessons or classes are also a warning that the service is not legitimate.

“You don’t have to pay to learn how to model or submit expensive photos to a prospective designer,” said Amanda Allen of the Cheyenne River tribe. Allen has modeled for a number of designers.

The designers also shared personal stories of how the art of fashion design had inspired and helped them overcome challenges. Goldtooth described his art as a means to survive an abusive home life. “I am a survivor. Design has helped me live my dream,” he told the audience.

He will soon be headed back to New York City’s fashion week for a second time where he will unveil his “Red Collection,” a tribute to his mother who survived years of abuse.

Over 100 people attended the free three- day conference that also included stories from trafficking survivors and presentations about methods to identify and create awareness of trafficking in the community.

Internet singing sensation Antoine Edwards Jr. performed as emcee of the runway show while modeling Still Smoking Designs.

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The conference was also sponsored by the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, First Nation’s Women’s Alliance, Call to Freedom and Still Smoking Designs. Heth and her supporters hope the fashion show will become an annual event.

During the conference, Heth announced the creation of Wiconi Wawokiya’s Pathfinder Center, a shelter aimed at serving survivors of sex trafficking. Although this is the first shelter of its kind in Indian country, Pathfinders will also serve non-Native clients.

The Pathfinder Center is located in central South Dakota and will provide survivors with refuge from traffickers, legal, medical and emotional support as well as addiction counseling, job skill and GED classes according to Heth.

Wiconi Wawokiya recently received a three-year grant of $750,000 specifically for victims of trafficking from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs and Office for Victim of Crimes but is still in need of funding for survivors, according to Heth.

Wiconi Wawokiya also operates the Project Safe Shelter for victims of domestic violence from the Crow Creek and Lower Brule reservations, The Children’s Safe Place in Fort Thompson, South Dakota, a child advocacy center where Indian children can come for forensic medical examinations and interviews for investigation of crimes involving children, and Mita Maske Ti Ki (My Sister Friends House) in Sioux Falls offering transitional housing for women.

Sex trafficking survivors, however, often need longer term support than others seeking typical shelter services. Most mainstream shelters will only house women for 30 days. Pathfinders will provide housing for six months to a year as well as longer term supportive services. “These women have been controlled for so long. It takes awhile to build trust with them and for them to feel safe enough to share their feelings with us, “Heth said.

The Pathfinders center is located in a former motel that workers and volunteers at Wiconi Wawokiya are working to upgrade to serve 14-16 clients.

Heth hopes to invite volunteers and organizations to sponsor rooms at the shelter by donating furnishings or cash. “Donor groups can come to the shelter and decorate the rooms if they wish. Each room will have a plaque with the sponsor’s name engraved on it, “ Heth said.

“We believe that God wants a place for these women to feel safe,” Heth added.

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