A young Native woman left her reservation to find work, only to be approached by a pimp who found her look “exotic.” Another teen says the “aunties” she considered family coached her to become a prostitute.
Tiffany Morris has heard countless stories like these while doing gang outreach at the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland, Oregon. Youth trafficking impacts people of all ages and demographics, she says, but Native teens are especially vulnerable because of the prevalence of sexual abuse in their communities.
“Sex abuse and rape against Native women and girls is higher than in the general population, and it’s known that when girls or women have been sexually abused or raped, it’s easier for them to be picked up into a life of trafficking,” Morris says. Native communities “are beginning to open up about the violence against women on and off the reservations,” she adds, “but there’s still a lot of fear and a lot of judgment, so they don’t always talk about it.”
Weighing the Impact of Historical Trauma
Family and youth workers hoping to end the sexual exploitation of Native youth must first understand the cultural factors behind the problem, says Suzanne Koepplinger, executive director of Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.
In 2011, MIWRC contributed to a report (2,321KB, PDF) on prostitution and trafficking among Native women in Minnesota—the first to focus on the Native community. The report examined the impact of historical trauma on the current mental, emotional and financial health of Native populations. For example, ongoing attempts to occupy Native land or remove Native children from their homes, the report says, have been linked to high rates of substance abuse, depression and suicide. Such trauma can also manifest itself in symptoms like high anxiety and poor coping skills, Koepplinger says, potentially leading to increased violence in the home.
These factors, in turn, may compel youth to run away or join a gang—two circumstances that increase their odds of sexual exploitation. Some Native youth embrace gangs because they emphasize identity and culture similar to tribal life, Morris says, only to be exploited by their new “family.”
“Maybe there’s just one abuser within that gang, but they’re all brothers. [If you leave], you don’t just hide from one individual. You have to hide from everybody.”
Finding What Works
So how do family and youth workers help Native youth avoid trafficking, or escape an exploitative situation?
- Screen for trafficking during the intake process: Simply adding questions to your intake form isn’t enough, Koepplinger says, particularly when the words used don’t resonate. Instead of asking youth if they’ve ever been trafficked, for example, agencies can ask more nuanced questions like if they’ve ever traded sex for food, or whether they know someone working as a pimp.
- Educate staff on Native issues: Each tribe’s culture can be very different, so it’s important to learn about the tribes near your area. Native-centric organizations like NAYA can also provide tips and resources for improving staff’s cultural competence.
- Give voice to survivors: At MIWRC, survivors are invited to help lead initiatives to share their success stories and provide mentorship to struggling youth.
- Understand that cycles take time to break: Family and youth workers cannot force a young person to leave a dangerous environment, Koepplinger says, but they can consistently offer to be there for youth when the time is right. “Pimp control is very deep, and it’s an emotional bond. You can’t break that bond. You have to replace it.”