“I was growing up good,” Jessica Smith says one afternoon in St. Paul, Minnesota, in a small apartment rental that is used by women struggling to get out of trafficking. “Everything was fine, good family, everything was good, until I met a guy, and he changed my whole life.”
Smith, now 21, was one of many young Native American girls who have been seduced into sex trafficking by a romantic interest. Born in St. Paul to parents struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction, Smith was put up for adoption at the age of 2 and placed with a family she describes as good, stable, and loving. She spent the next 11 years having a normal childhood, she says, until she met that guy and fell in love.
“I didn’t care about anything else, my friends, I stopped talking to them, and I started doing cocaine,” she said. “It changed my life.”
Smith moved to Duluth with him.
“I was really young, prostituting, doing drugs, selling drugs, he was making me do whatever he said at that time. I was trading money for sex, money for drugs, whatever he wanted me to do.
He was her first pimp.
Smith went home to Duluth — tried to get out of “the life,” as prostitution is sometimes referred — but soon there was another pimp and she was back to working in prostitution, this time throughout Minnesota.
Eventually, when she got pregnant, Smith went to her adopted parents and asked for help.
“I went to my mom’s house and we talked about everything and she got me help, and then I went to Breaking Free,” Smith says.
Breaking Free is a group run by survivors of trafficking in St. Paul that helps women still strapped in a life of prostitution break away from pimps, johns, and the life, as they call it.
Native Americans make up less than 2% of the overall population in the United States, but in the Minneapolis area at least, they make up almost 25% of arrests for prostitution. The disproportionate number of Native women involved in sex trafficking isn’t limited to the Minneapolis area; in fact it bears out globally. Around the world, indigenous women are overrepresented as victims of trafficking compared to dominant populations, according to the United Nations.
“The objectification of Native women and trafficking have been there from the very beginning,” said Patina Park, the executive director of the Minneapolis Indian Women’s Resource Center.
Like Breaking Free, the MIWRC tries to help women out of the cycle of trafficking, in which they come to depend on prostitution and pimps for money, housing, and food.
Advocates point out that poverty, homelessness, and addiction make women vulnerable to entering into prostitution or being trafficked because pimps can help meet those basic needs. Also, the reason so many Native women are homeless and impoverished is, in part, because of federal policies that have made the population the poorest ethnic group in the nation.
“It all created these pockets of poverty, which lead to the problem of having to do something you might not want to,” Park said.
She has seen multiple generations of women in a single family practicing prostitution, encouraging the young girls to learn the trade as they became of legal age. “It all gets normalized within the community,” she said.
Tarah Dement, the senior director of Amnesty International’s Identity and Discrimination Unit, emphasized how around the world, the trafficking of indigenous women has been a result of policies that discriminate against them, blocking access to police protection and justice after violent crimes.
“This is systemic and purposeful, the stripping of indigenous people of pathways to safety and justice,” Dement said.
The majority of trafficking victims globally are from Southeast Asia, and the majority are from indigenous communities, she said. The UN’s Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues points to the Asia Pacific region as being a main hub of trafficking for indigenous women, including in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Thailand. Girls between the ages of 12 and 16 from tribes in remote areas make up most of the victims of trafficking in the region, according to a 2014 report from UNPFII.
But the problem is even more widespread than that. In India, Latin America and Africa, indigenous girls are often the victims of sex trafficking, especially in areas of conflict, and have little access to police help or justice, according to the report.
The trafficking of Native girls within the US is unique in how it connects the reservations with the urban areas, advocates said. Chris Martin, an investigator with the Duluth, Minnesota, police department who represents the police on the Duluth Trafficking Task Force, said that girls on reservations in need of money will often make a trip to the cities — Duluth, Minneapolis — for a few days or weeks to make some money in prostitution before going back home.
Sometimes, they’ll get taken by pimps to other cities like Chicago or down to Florida, Park said, and sometimes, they’ll go where they know they can make a lot of money: the oil fields.
“The man-camps out at the Bakken are another major new market,” Park said.
The Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana, a stone’s throw from many reservations, have attracted a mostly male workforce, and along with it, prostitution.
Tina Olson, the executive director of Mending the Sacred Hoop, a group that works with tribes in northern states to help women recover from violence, said that teenagers she’s met on reservations will talk about men coming onto the reservation and asking girls to go with them for a week, saying they can make some money.
“Parents look the other way, not because they’re not fit parents or don’t have values, but because they’re poor,” Olson said.
Martin, the Duluth police investigator, has developed a prevention system by which police try and identify kids who might be vulnerable to being trafficked. If a juvenile has three or more runaway reports and any history of sexual abuse or exploitation, Martin goes to the home to interview them, both in order to build a relationship and to try and get other social services involved early to solve problems that could lead to trafficking later.
Often, the kids are in single-parent households, not doing well in school, and have a history of either child abuse or neglect, he said. And of the high-risk youth he works with, about one-third are Native American kids, he said.
“We don’t have a huge population of Native Americans here. Duluth is not 33% Native American, it’s over 80% white.”
“On the reservation, up there it’s not a good place, people say it is, but it ain’t,” Jessica Smith says when asked why so many Native girls end up being trafficked, pointing to the prevalence of alcohol, pills, and cocaine.
She also said that traffickers and pimps know this fact, know that Native girls are more likely to come from unstable homes and therefore be vulnerable to their approaches.
When Smith finally decided to get help, Breaking Free offered her help with food, housing, hygiene products, and a support group — Sisters of Survival — where she immediately found acceptance among other women who had been “in the life,” too.
The UN’s report on violence against indigenous women recommends culturally-sensitive interventions and programs — like Breaking Free, Sacred Hoop, and the MIWRC — to help victims, as well as legal reforms to help protect vulnerable indigenous girls. Minnesota became a Safe Harbor state in 2011, enacting a law that focuses on treating women caught in prostitution as victims instead of criminals and raises the fines on johns who hire them, using the extra revenue to help fund support programs for trafficking victims.
Smith, who has been out of the life for five years now and still participates in Breaking Free, says she is ready to start the next chapter of her life, and help those who may be at risk behind her.
“I want to go to school, to be something, to help other young women or girls or even men that need helping to get out of the life,” she said. “I hope for something to change, for drugs to change in our lives, for our families to change.”