Human trafficking steals freedom from individuals, families and communities for the purpose of profits. The issue affects all races, creeds, ages, and demographics, and some more than others. Four out of five native women will be a victim of a violent crime (i.e. rape, murder, trafficking, abduction, sexual assault) during their life. Most of the time the perpetrator of those crimes are non-indigenous people. Ninety-six percent of victims were attacked by someone with no relation to a tribal nation, according to the U.S. National Institute of Justice. With very little data on missing and murdered indigenous persons, statistics that are available are likely under counted all across the country. In 2016 alone, only 116 cases of missing indigenous people were logged by the Department of Justice’s NamUs program, out of over 5,000 cases of people reported missing.
“…intergenerational and historical trauma have existed for hundreds of years within our tribal communities. So understanding this history, as well as the impact of complex trauma on survivors of human trafficking, is critical to supporting their healing process. And if someone goes missing, we have a protocol that we’ll follow. And we’ll work with the area law enforcement, area response teams, and we’ll, the victim services, we’ll work with the family. So we have these teams that we are forming so we don’t waste any time.” – Carole LaPointe, Team Lead Niimigimiwang Transitional Home
In 2019, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) Tribal Council proclaimed the month of May, specifically May 5th, a day and month of awareness on the epidemic of missing and murdered women in and around reservations nationwide. The community is not exempt from this problem. Although statistics are not as high as different regional areas, it is occurring. Inter-generational and historical trauma have existed for hundreds of years within tribal communities. Understanding this history as well as the impact of complex trauma on survivors of human trafficking is critical to supporting their healing process. As victim service providers, they see how victimization due to human trafficking, stalking, domestic and sexual violence overlap, the most common mechanism being: interpersonal violence and control, grooming, and alcohol/drug abuse.
Understanding the interrelation between risk factors is critical, as well as how quickly and subliminal human trafficking occurs. By identifying prevention methods, local resources and victim services, the hope is to mitigate the chances of victims being forced into trafficking, and eventually stop such incidents from occurring.
Common perceptions of where these crimes against Native Americans take place are also false. With the majority of abductions and murders of Native Americans occurring off reservations, often times in urban areas and cities. But that does not mean rural communities don’t play a role in how people are moved from one state to another. LaPointe mentions that KBIC has seen a number of victims at their shelter since their program started, coming from areas out west, and escaping while they are being passed through the Upper Peninsula, too often though victims won’t get that chance.
Some risk factors that increase the likelihood of a person falling victim to these situations include drug abuse, lack of stable income, generational trauma and lack of understanding tribal ways of living. Victims can be drugged using substances such as Rohypnol or GHB, both are common date rape drugs, which make the victim drowsy, and sometime lose consciousness.
“Which is what traffickers do, they inject them with drugs. They [victims] might not even know, that they are doing that. And pretty soon they’re just like other survivors or victims that are trafficked. So I would say that poverty is another reason or risk factor, and intergenerational trauma are the biggest factors.” – Carole LaPointe, Team Lead Niimigimiwang Transitional Home
Currently in Michigan, the NamUs database, lists eight indigenous persons that are currently missing, and one that is unidentified and one unclaimed. These numbers are likely under counted for the number of victims that have gone missing in the state. But it is hard to say for sure, with so little data available on victims. Recognizing and addressing the country and state’s historic oppression of Native Americans is an initial step to closing the gap between demographics of missing people. Of course, ideally these crimes will never happen again. But acknowledging the past and planning for a more supportive future will be keys to finding victims and reuniting them with their families and communities. As well as finding closure for those that will never been seen again.
The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community does operate a victim services program and transitional home. It is one of 50 in the United States, supporting the more than 560 tribes in the country. The good news is more funding for transitional and victim services homes are on the way, with new legislation created by Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) back in March.
For the local community making note of suspicious activity and reporting it to law enforcement is the biggest way to help victim get out of being trafficked. LaPointe told of one such incident, where she noticed a victim out at a restaurant with traffickers. Made a note of the time, who was sitting at the table, and discreetly snapped a photo to provide information to authorities. NEVER make contact with traffickers; doing so may put the victim into a more harmful situation than what is already occurring. Mark the day, time, location, type and color of clothing, as well as a physical description of the trafficker(s) and victim. If you see something suspicious make reports to the local Immigration Customs Services and Homeland Security Investigations offices by calling 1-866-347-2423.
Special thank you to Carole LaPointe for collaborating on this effort to help educate the public.