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Why We Must Fight to End Sex Trafficking of Native Americans

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

By Julie Godchaux-Linneman and Mary Wiese

Violet is a Native American girl raised in a foster home. Her foster parents called her and her sisters “little savages” and often admonished them to be thankful they had a home. Adult relatives and family friends sexually abused Violet when she was child. When she turned twelve, she was kidnapped and trafficked to another city where she was beaten, raped, given addictive drugs against her will, and sold into prostitution.[i]

For many reasons, Native American people are at greater risk for sex trafficking than the national average. Additionally, Native American women and children experience higher levels of sexual violence compared to all other women in the United States.[ii] They also may have far fewer legal options, safe spaces to seek help and may never be able to leave the abuse.

  • Native American women are over 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the U.S. in general.[iii]

  • More than one in three Native American women will be raped during their lifetime.[iv]

  • On some Indian reservations, women are murdered at ten times the national average.[v]

Why are Native Americans at this much higher risk of sexual violence and trafficking?

The reasons are unfortunately both long and varied, making the issue that much harder to fight. Statistics show there are high rates of poverty and hardship in tribal communities. These communities also have to deal with historical trauma and culture loss, raising the risk of members to be exploited. Statistically, there are also large numbers of homeless and runaway youth, high rates of involvement with child welfare systems including entry into the foster care system, exposure to violence in the home or community, drug and alcohol abuse, and low levels of law enforcement which all add up to a population rich in targets for traffickers.

Valaura Imus-Nahsonhoya, a victim advocate and expert on human trafficking in Indian Country who has developed programs to support victims and survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual assault, believes that the reason for targeting Native Americans could be much darker. “We’re associated with fetishes, such as long dark hair, exotic looks that sex patrons perceive as Asian or Hispanic,” Imus-Nahsonhoya says.[vi] Amnesty International reports seem to support this - in eighty-six percent of reported cases of rape or sexual assault against Native women, survivors report that the perpetrators are non-Native men.[vii]

“Violence against Indian women occurs as a gauntlet in the lives of Indian women: at one end verbal abuse and at the other murder. Most Indian women do not report such crimes because of the belief that nothing will be done.”

-Juana Majel, National Congress of American Indians, and Karen Artichoker, Cangleska, Inc.-Sacred Circle[viii]

What Has Been Done to Fight this Issue?

Because of the intricacies of laws regarding reservations, local municipalities and individual states have limited abilities to create change, leaving most of the change to occur on the national level.

One of the national responses to the increasingly high levels of physical violence against Native women and children, was the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act of 2013. This Act allows tribal courts to prosecute a non-Native for acts of domestic violence, dating violence, or violations of protection orders.[ix]

The Tribal Law and Order Act is another noteworthy national step to including tribal members in keeping their communities safe. The act encourages hiring of Native American law enforcement agencies, provides greater funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal police officers, and even supports the development of more prevention programs for at-risk youth. [x]

We Have to Do More to Protect Native American Women and Children

A recent report by Arizona's Study Committee on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, echoes that this lack of ability for tribal courts to prosecute trafficking on reservation land is something that only helps traffickers. The report notes that confusion over jurisdiction, lack of resources for victims' advocates, and failure to provide culturally competent training create cracks that Indigenous women and girls fall through.[xi]

This problem is both tragic and all-encompassing so we need to respond together. We must work together to spread awareness of this issue, learn more about what is occurring, and also how to stop it.

To learn more about this please visit the National Congress of American Indians at

Learn more about how human trafficking is like a pandemic on reservations by listening to NPR’s 4 minute listen about the issue.

And your donations to support StreetLightUSA will go a long way in helping guide more children who have been the victims of sex trafficking to go from trauma to triumph.


[i] Nicole Matthews, et al., Trafficking of Native American Women for Prostitution in Minnesota: Some Preliminary Findings, Focus Group on Human Trafficking of American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Children, 2 (Aug. 25, 2010), 10.pdf. [ii] Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA, AMNESTY INT’L, 2 (2007), [iii] Ibid [iv] Ibid [v] The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act - S.1925, Title IX: Safety for Indian Women, NAT’LCONG. OF AM. INDIANS, 1 (Mar. 22, 2012), aNWvmbuDVHyJLuXjgMFbPZRlNiRXkixCAraUNsEsbJzhSwJSl_Tribal%20VAWA_Backgrounder.pdf. [vi] Krol, D. (2019, March 19). Identifying, tracking and preventing human trafficking in Indian country. Navajo-Hopi Observer News. [vii] Amnesty International. (2007, January). Maze of Injustice. supra note 6, at 4. [viii] Restoration of Native Sovereignty- Restoration of Safety for Native Women, National Congress of American Indians, National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, VAWA Public Law 109-162, Volume V, September 2006 [ix] Introduction to the Violence Against Women Act, TRIBAL COURT CLEARINGHOUSE, http://www.tribal- [x]The United States Department of Justice. (2020, January 2). Tribal Law and Order Act. The United States Department of Justice. [xi]Pool, P. (2020, November 3). Arizona Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Committee releases final report. Indian Country Today.

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