This is the first City in Focus in a series examining trafficking trends in the American Heartland.
North and South Dakota embody the dream of the American frontier: wide open spaces, and virgin territory that, even today, maintain a sense of possibility which has inspired generations of Americans. Here is America, a blank canvas, an unrealized dream. But human trafficking has a bad habit of springing up anywhere and everywhere, even in the places most remote or out of reach. In the vast expanse of wheat and grain fields of the Dakotas, punctuated by ranches and American Indian reservations, sex trafficking has a grip that is nothing short of terrifying. A mix of current energy expansion and centuries of exploitation, the strain of oppression here is a sober reminder of the depravity that exists in the Land of the Free.
Beyond the streaming highways, an oil boom in the western North Dakota has attracted workers from all over the nation. Small towns have ballooned with workers, sending housing prices out of reach for most locals and many itinerant workers as well. The oil boom began about seven years ago. Oil companies learned how to use hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” — the same controversial process used to extract natural gas from the Appalachian region (among other places)— to reach unconventional reservoirs. What emerged was a boom bigger and perhaps longer lasting than any prior boom in the Dakotas. The region around the rock formation that contains the oil, called the Bakken, is now attracting prostitution from around the country because of the high prices prostituted women can fetch from oil workers with bankrolls and not much to do in rural oil towns. Prostitution comes part and parcel with a host of ills —gang violence, drug trafficking, over crowding— that accompany a drilling boom like the one happening in Bakken, which is taxing existing infrastructures and local police forces. Prostitution is almost always linked with sex trafficking, since trafficking cannot thrive without a market for the sale of victims. Police forces in towns and reservations surrounding Bakken drilling are already reporting escalating numbers of both.
Native American Women are Victims
But the latest trends indicate that Native American women and girls are being targeted in greater numbers. Native American women are typically over-represented (in terms of population) for sexual abuse, and for trafficking. They are recruited from within Native culture by gangs, and even family members. Some have even been reported as being pimped out for commercial sex in port towns like Duluth, MN.
It is not difficult to see why this is a growing trend. The grim reality is that traffickers prey upon vulnerability; and perhaps the most vulnerable population in the Dakotas region are Native American women and girls. Recently, prosecutors have convicted a series of trafficking cases featuring Native American girls.
While these trends may seem alarming, the truth is that Native American women have been the targets of sexual exploitation for centuries. Some of the earliest accounts of abuse suffered by Native American women stem back to the sixteenth century. European explorers, who found no correspondence in Native American culture with the patriarchy of Europe, assumed the ordered sexual hierarchy of Native culture was nothing more than unbridled promiscuity. Following this line of thought, European colonists abused, exploited, and raped Native American girls as they pleased with no restrictions.
During the centuries that followed, (primarily) white oppressors only reinforced degrading stereotypes of Native American women, and beleaguered native populations further with episodes of containment, relocation, and genocide. These waves of oppression, the price paid for unbridled US expansion, had the culminating effect of leaving Native American women with a worldview ripe for vulnerability, according to the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource center, (MIWRC).
What that means is that today’s Native American women must often weather a culturally induced storm of volatile families, alcohol/drug abuse, and exploitation that wears many of them down to an extremely vulnerable state; once there, traffickers— whether gang members, or pimps posing as boyfriends— step in to sweep them into prostitution, whether in a Bakken town or a port town like Duluth. The pattern is predictable and must be broken.