“These young women may be coerced into believing they are providing for their families and thus be reluctant to testify.”

Living the Life: Sex Abuse Leads to Sex Trafficking

Mary Annette Pember

Native women and girls with their high rates of sexual assault are particularly vulnerable to sex traffickers. Kevin Koliner, South Dakota Assistant U.S. Attorney noted that more than 50 percent of the sex trafficking cases prosecuted over the past five years by the South Dakota State’s Attorney’s office involved Native victims, an astonishing number.

Despite media coverage suggesting the Bakken oil patch is the main driver and destination for sex trafficking in the Great Plains region, most of the trafficking affecting Indian country is “home-grown,” according to Koliner. Many of the cases involve family members and can be described as survival sex or sex in exchange for items such as beer or drugs. “I can understand why people would want to attribute the trafficking solely to the Bakken oil fields, but Sioux Falls is a long way from Williston, North Dakota,” he said.

Several stories in the mainstream media have eagerly made this connection often citing the boomtown atmosphere surrounding the Bakken oil fields as the primary driver of sex trafficking. Tribal police from the Fort Berthold reservation, however, note that the notorious Morsette sex trafficking case involving tribal members coercing underage girls to have sex in exchange for money and drugs actually predated the Bakken oil boom by at least a year. Although perpetrators were prosecuted and convicted in 2012, the crimes occurred in 2008-09.

Koliner described a recent case in which a Native woman living on a South Dakota reservation (he requested that the woman’s name and location be withheld to protect victims) trafficked several young women in her care to migrant construction workers in the area in exchange for filling her gas tank and for food and beer.

Regarding the high numbers of Native sex trafficking victims, Koliner suggests that the crime may not be a new problem but rather reflects the terminology used in criminal charges. “In the past, perpetrators may have been charged with aggravated sexual abuse, rape or other categories,” he said. He points out that the perpetrators are “all over the map, Native and non-Native alike.”

“Most were sexually abused as kids before they got with a pimp later in life. They walk around thinking everything that has happened to them is their fault, that they simply made bad choices; they don’t see themselves as victims,” adds Vednita Carter, founder of Breaking Free, a Minneapolis-based non-profit dedicated to helping women escape prostitution.

According to Sarah Deer, an attorney and professor of law who has worked for years to draw attention to high rates of sexual assault among Native women, the sex trafficking of Native girls and women is a story 500 years in the making. It is part of a historical dynamic of trauma that has framed Native women as more sexually available than others. Deer says the sexual exploitation of Native women began with their initial contact with Europeans and continues to this day. Exacerbated by the boarding school experience which contributed to normalizing sexual abuse, Native peoples have a traumatic history of sexual violence.

RELATED: ‘The Beginning and End of Rape’: A Look at Sarah Deer’s Newest Book

“These young women may be coerced into believing they are providing for their families and thus be reluctant to testify against them,” Koliner said. “There is nothing about Native culture that makes young women more vulnerable than those of other ethnicities.”

“Our reservations in South Dakota are located in the poorest counties in the United States. This is a crime of poverty. Sex trafficking in Indian country is a national embarrassment,” noted Koliner.


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