Tag Archives: Indian Country

Human Trafficking in Indian Country

“Human trafficking, the exploitation of a person typically through force, fraud, or coercion for such purposes as forced labor, involuntary servitude, or commercial sex,” Gretta L. Goodwin of the Government Accountability Office told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs yesterday, is “occurring in the United States.”  Drawing upon evidence from the Office of the Attorney General,  traffickers seek out vulnerable individuals.  This vulnerability, Goodwin said, “comes in many forms, including age (minors), poverty, homelessness, chemical dependency, prior experiences of abuse, involvement in foster care programs, and lack of resources or support systems.”

Native Americans, she argued, are indeed such a vulnerable population.  Goodwin cited statistics familiar to those of us who study Indian Country.  28 percent of native peoples live in poverty nationwide, compared to 15% of the general population.  According to “the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 27 percent of Native American women have been raped in their lifetime compared to 18 percent of American women overall.”  Native American children are twice as likely as other children to enter the foster care system.

These figures, and their significance, were underscored by Nicole Matthews, the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Woman’s Sexual Assault Coalition.  The Native American women she and her associates interviewed demonstrated that historical trauma and childhood sexual abuse “were a precursor or antecedent for the women who were used in trafficking.” Indeed, Matthews testified, “79% of the women we interviewed were sexually abused as children, by an average of four perpetrators; and 67% of victims reported that they had family members who were sent to boarding schools, and most were abused in those boarding schools.”  Matthews’ research is available here.  It is a stunning document.

Cindy McCain, who participates on the Arizona Governor’s Council on Human Trafficking, spoke last at the Committee hearing. She told the senators that she would soon participate in an anti-trafficking roundtable in North Dakota. She wanted the senators to know that the remoteness of the Bakken area in that state, and

“the high unemployment rate of nearby Indian reservations, combined with the oil and gas boom, have created a hotbed for trafficking.  Victims are mostly Native American women and girls transported to the region specifically for sex trafficking. Many of these victims are under the age of 18. Children being sold for sex. Outward and organized child abuse and rape.”

McCain pointed out that human trafficking had enslaved more than 41 million people worldwide.  It is, she said, an organized crime.  But it is also a crime of opportunity for, she argued, “Native American girls and women are all too often trafficked by their own relatives.” McCain had seen herself six small girls “lined up against a wall in an Indian casino outside of Phoenix on display for customers.”

McCain did not provide evidence for the involvement of Native American families in the trafficking of their young relatives, and her claim that Native American girls fetched a high price because of their “exotic beauty” is painful to read.  Still, she and the other witnesses raised some important issues.

There is a dearth of evidence.  Of the 132 tribal law enforcement agencies (LEA) that responded to the GAO’s request for information, 27 reported that they had conducted investigations between 2014 and 2016 that involved human trafficking.  And, according to Goodwin,

“Nearly half of tribal LEA respondents (60 of 132) reported that they believe human trafficking is occurring on tribal land in their jurisdictions beyond what had been brought to their attention. Officials from two tribal LEAs told us during in-person meetings that in their experience some victims do not come forward to report their victimization because they are embarrassed or feel ashamed. Several survey respondents also indicated that they suspect there is more human trafficking than what has been reported to them because of the presence of casinos on their land (14 of 60). For example, officials from one LEA explained that the tribal casino hotel may be used as a venue for sex trafficking. Some respondents (13 of 60) suspect that sex trafficking may be occurring as part of some of the drug crimes that they investigate. Officials from one county LEA we visited near a tribal community told us that officers may not recognize that human trafficking is taking place, particularly when it occurs alongside another crime like drug trafficking.”

The Justice Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Homeland Security–all of them provide grants to help combat human trafficking, but the problem remains ill-defined, one of great magnitude but hazy borders.  More resources are needed still.  Jurisdiction is a critical issue, as well. Much of the trafficking is supported by non-Indians who are in all but a few instances beyond prosecution by tribal authorities.  More information is needed. Tracy Tolou, the director of the Office of Tribal Justice in DOJ said that data limitations are significant.  It is hard to know the scope of the problem when it remains so difficult to investigate and prosecute.  According to Jason Thompson, the acting director of the Office of Justice Services in the BIA, only twelve investigations by his office have been conducted over the past four years, with only 23 defendants prosecuted.

This is crime on the margins. When I discuss problems related to the issues the Senate Committee confronted in my Indian law class, there is a sense among some of my students that this sort of exploitation and violence is inevitable.  Native communities are poor.  They are isolated.  The Supreme Court has made the prosecution of non-Indians by tribal law enforcement officers difficult where it is not impossible. I ask the students what might be done.  They struggle to think of answers.  I understand the difficulties.  I appreciate their efforts to think of solutions.

Native American history is a story of tragedy, of violence, of crime, of theft and plunder. It is, at other times, a story of blundering goodwill.  Even those who want to do right often do damage.  I have made my career teaching students this history and writing about it.  I once got involved in an argument with a conservative friend who said that if these problems went away, I would be out of a job. That I want to find things to bitch about.  It is a stupid argument, and I told my friend this.  I am a historian. I would love for these problems to be part of the past.  And that might be my insight on this story, as a historian.  We, as a nation and as individuals, have choices.  We are not doomed to repeat the past, and we do not have to continue walking that ragged path that we have walked for so long. There are choices here. Write your representatives and senators.  Write the Attorney General and the President. Given the people currently occupying many of those offices, it is difficult to be optimistic, but these are problems that can be ameliorated.  It is a choice.  We can do more.

Yeah, About that Issue of What is Fair and What is Unfair

A number of disgruntled readers of my piece on Donald Trump have reached out to me with angry emails.  My essay appeared in the Syracuse newspapers a week or so ago.

One reader raised an argument with which may of us who teach Native American history are familiar, and with which we must contend.  Referring to the Oneidas of New York, who operate a lucrative casino and resort complex a short distance from Syracuse and just off the New York State Thruway, this reader asserted that “the ‘sovereign nation’ concept is obsolete and unfair to taxpaying citizens.”

“Last time I checked,” he continued, “most Oneida Indians live within the borders of the US, the County of Madison and the town of Vernon, They drive their cars on public highways, are protected by our military, so on and so on, just like me.”

Oneidas did everything this writer did, he argued, “except pay taxes.”  Asserting that Indians have unfair advantages, he declared that “it’s time to level the playing field.”

If you teach Native American history, you have likely encountered these sentiments before.  If you are a student in a Native American history class, it is a safe bet that some of your classmates share these views.  They are not uncommon.  I heard them when I lived in Montana.  They were for many years the lifeblood of the anti-Indian sovereignty group Upstate Citizens for Equality, which opposed Indian gaming and other commercial operations in New York state and Indian land claims.  Some of their signs still dot the roads coursing through New York’s Finger Lakes region.

We could, I suppose, dismiss these views as anti-Indian racism.  That, in my view, would be a mistake.  We need to engage.  We need to educate, and tackle views such as these head on. Our students, after all, learn nothing about concepts like tribal sovereignty and the place of native peoples in the American constitutional system and, at best, little about Native American history. At times, views like these are expressed with such vehemence that we might feel as if we are casting our pearls before swine, but I believe that these are teachable moments. And I would argue that we let these opportunities pass us by at considerable cost.

When I face views such as these, I try to concede a few points. In other words, if one sets aside the entire historical experience of the native community in question–which historians are always reluctant to do–it might seem that native peoples have certain “advantages.”  But these so-called advantages are often misunderstood, or based upon fallacies, or a lack of information about the constitution and American Indian history.

Sometimes I find this stuff difficult to explain.  Sometimes I think the people who write to me really do not want to hear a history lesson, or an explanation for how things came to be.

So I begin with the fact that native peoples belong to polities that predate the United States.  Under American constitutionalism, native nations retain by virtue of their inherent sovereignty the right to govern most of their own affairs, on their own lands, so long as they have not explicitly lost those rights by virtue of an act of Congress or a treaty, or implicitly because the practice in question is somehow inconsistent with their status as domestic dependent nations.  I will point out that to a great extent they have lost criminal and civil jurisdiction over non-native peoples who own land on their reservations, but that they retain considerable power still.  I point out that over the course of the last forty years the Supreme Court has weakened significantly the powers of tribal governments.

So much for the Constitution.  I also point out that the notion that “Indians pay no taxes” is an oversimplification.  Native Americans pay federal taxes, even when that income is earned entirely on a reservation. States and localities do not have the constitutional right to tax economic activity by native peoples on Indian land.  (The most useful discussion of this issue appears in Chapter 10 of Stephen L. Pevar’s The Rights of Indians and Tribes, (4th ed., 2012)).  I am willing to concede that this might pose a competitive disadvantage to non-native businesses located in the vicinity of Indian reservations, but that this is not simply a product of “special treatment” or an “uneven playing field,” but because of the language of the Constitution which places Indian affairs under the control of the federal government.  I point out that in a number of instances, Congress has allowed states to exercise its authority in Indian country.  This is the case in New York State.

I have been at this a long time. Racism towards Native Americans is a real thing.  The inequalities experienced by native communities are significant.  The statistics do not lie.  New York became the Empire State, as Laurence Hauptman has so ably shown, through a systematic program of Iroquois dispossession. You could not have one without the other.

The transactions through which New York acquired Iroquois land happened a long time ago, but these were transactions that violated federal laws the United States lacked the power and perhaps the willingness to enforce.  The Supreme Court has held that these transactions occurred so long ago that nothing can be done to right these wrongs, but that does not mean that the rights retained by native peoples should be ignored.

New York’s native peoples have seen, through a long history, their homelands invaded.  They experienced waves of epidemic disease.  They faced dispossession, and then the effort to “remove” them to new homes in Arkansas, or Wisconsin, or the Indian Territory, and then to re-educate their children, and disable their governments.  Disease, warfare, dispossession, diaspora: the injuries occurred a long time ago, but their legacies remain.  And now, when a community like the Oneidas manage to bring a measure of prosperity to their homelands, after the withering trauma of history, there are those non-Indians who cry out, “Wait! This isn’t fair!”

Give me a break.  Look at the ground underneath your feet.  If you believe that laws matter, that the Constitution matters, that the pledges in a treaty that guarantees to the Six Nations the right to “the free use and employment of their lands” matters, then drop the whining about what is or is not unfair. Please.  I was writing about something else, a president’s name-calling that I considered racist.  Stop sniveling about fairness.  It is not a good look.  It makes you sound racist.