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Native Sun News: Confronting sex trafficking in South Dakota

The following story was written and reported by Christina Rose, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Presenter Guadalupe Lopez of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition informed advocates at the conference, “Confronting Sex Trafficking In South Dakota” about Native history and ongoing trauma associated with prostitution and human trafficking.

Confronting sex trafficking in South Dakota
By Christina Rose
Native Sun News, Staff writer

“When I thought of human trafficking, it was a problem that was oceans away. What I didn’t think about was home-grown human trafficking, and that is what is occurring within the state of SD,” said US Attorney Brendan Johnson, who spoke at a conference entitled, “Confronting Sex Trafficking In South Dakota.”

A 2011 case that prosecuted sex trafficker Brandon Quincy Thompson in Sioux Falls proved how vulnerable the state’s young girls can be. Johnson said that Thompson was recruiting young women in high school in Sioux Falls. “What he did was target the girls who were not from a stable environment, who didn’t have money. He made them feel like somebody cared about them. He promised them all sorts of things. For many, it was the first time there was a strong male in their life.”

Johnson said that once those girls were in the ring, they were “absolutely brutalized” and that they couldn’t leave their pimp because of threats. “There is a great deal of shame about what they’ve done. We see it all the time,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that the problem in SD has mostly been in Sioux Falls, and that state and local law enforcement have been working together. “We haven’t seen much in the Black Hills, but as long as you see advertising online for escorts, you will eventually have human trafficking here in Rapid City. It will happen. We all have to be vigilant.”

At the conference, presenters Nicole Matthews and Guadalupe Lopez of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition gave an in-depth look at the issues leading women into prostitution, exploring how especially vulnerable Native women facing homelessness, violence and poverty can be. Yet, much of the conference also centered on the responsibility of the men involved in prostitution, not simply the women as has been true in the past.

“So much emphasis is put on the women, but to make a statement that we will not allow men to buy women in South Dakota should be applauded,” Matthews said with a nod towards the work the state has put into the cause.

State Prosecutor Kevin Koliner said that in Minnehaha County, “We have 18 current state prosecutions of johns ongoing right now that have spawned from our federal investigations. We just convicted a guy of five counts of sex trafficking a few weeks ago, another two guys are standing trial in a month, and there is yet another guy with nine ongoing investigations.”

Lopez and Matthews seek to bring awareness of the stereotypes of prostitution and sex trafficking. “Media gives us visuals of what we think we know, we have guesses,” Matthews said. The conference offered a full picture of women who have been trafficked, sometimes as children and wives within their own home.

Local areas identified for sex trafficking include events that bring outsiders into the area, including the Sturges Rally, truck stops, hunting season and the Stock Show. However, the speakers pointed out that trafficking can also happen within the family, and through the internet.

For those who believe that prostitution is a choice or a profession, statistics showed that most prostitution begins with deception and trickery, and all too often targets girls or women who have been victims before. “What’s the difference between prostitution or a trafficked victim? There is no difference,” Lopez announced.

To prove her point, she asked, “How many of you wanted to be a prostitute when you grow up? Somewhere between the lines of society is a disconnect with our humanness, with our view towards sex and our entitlement to it.”

Matthews stated that sexual entitlement might be based on race, gender, social or economic privilege. She said, “Prostitution would not happen if we did not have oppression and our “isms,” sexism and racism.”

Lopez said that early in the development of their coalition, tribal women knew they wanted to have a voice and “wanted a mirror” at the table. “We wanted it to be done with our own voices, through our hearts, our lenses.”

Matthews recalled, “At the time, there was a serial killer in Minnesota that was killing and assaulting Native women and nothing much was being done about it.” The community had long been silent about sexual violence, and she said, “No one was looking for the perpetrator and it was clearly hate crimes by the way the women were being murdered.”

With 11 tribes in Minnesota, there were only five sexual assault programs in place. “At that time the word trafficking wasn’t being used,” Lopez said. “Now we understand that prostitution is violence against women. It is sexual violence.”

Lopez said they began to look at the social grooming of what prostitution is, and who was involved in it. The group started having community dialogues, with survivors coming in to share their experiences.

Matthews said, “We heard a lot about Native women being trafficked in Duluth for decades. We heard from women in their 60s, and women in their 20s. We heard about parties on the ships, and how women were being enticed to the ships and never seen or heard from again. Native women were being brought from tribal communities to urban areas. In Minnesota, Native women are 2% of the population but they represented 5% of the women who were chronic offenders of prostitution, and we wanted to find out why.”

The women believe that colonization introduced prostitution to this country. “When women were being forced to march onto reservations our women sometimes needed to trade sex for food for their children,” lamented Lopez who said that it wasn’t the only time Native Americans were relocated.

Programs that moved Natives from reservations into cities in the 1950s and the boarding schools created the long history of removing Native Americans from the security of homelands, family, culture and tribes, and has had a disastrous effect. “We can pinpoint what happened,” Lopez said.

Looking out at the gathered crowd, Lopez noted that the audience was made up of women of many races and from as far away as New York. “We are all here to work together. I think that’s really important.”

Recognizing that many of the non-natives in the audience were unaware of the effect of boarding schools on Native people, Lopez said, “The boarding school era of abuse took it’s toll on us. This disconnect (between Native and non-native) is the reason it is sometimes hard for us to work with each other. It’s not because we don't want to. If you want to walk alongside us, you need to know this. It will diminish some stereotypes and bring some compassion,” Lopez said.

Matthews added that 2/3 of Native women had relatives removed to boarding schools. “There is a connection between being colonized and being trafficked today,” she said, explaining that Native children still represent the highest numbers of children in out-of-home foster care placement. “It keeps happening to our children. Of the women who had been prostituted and interviewed for the survey, 48% had been placed in foster care, and half of them had been abused in some way.”

The women also called for compassion among families of women who have been victimized. In an interview for their report, entitled, “A Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota,” by Melissa Farley, Nicole Matthews, Sarah Deer, Guadalupe Lopez, Christine Stark, and Eileen Hudon, one woman described how she had been gang-raped by four men. She went home and told her parents and they kicked her out because she shouldn’t have been out on the streets. “She was thrown out on the street and within two hours she was picked up by someone,” and ended up being prostituted.

In another situation described by Lopez, “A young girl who had a 1 year-old baby was not really living anywhere. She was couch hopping with friends, and she ran out of places to stay. She was out late one winter night walking with her baby in the cold. A car pulled up and a man said, ‘Oh, you have a baby with you?’ The shelters were filled up, and she had no where to go, so she went into the car. She woke up in Chicago and was at his will. He was also trafficking other girls and he would make them watch her baby while he was prostituting her, and she could do nothing about it, because she was at his whim.”

The presenters’s report showed that 79% of the women being prostituted and interviewed had been sexually abused as children by an average of four perpetrators. In many cases substance abuse was involved. Matthews asked, “Did they use alcohol as a coping mechanism or were they introduced into drugs through prostitution?”

“Child sexual abuse is boot camp for prostitution,” Lopez announced. She said that when a child is sexualized, personal boundaries aren’t clear, and a perpetrator can see that. Lopez begged that people recognize the lack of control in a woman's life when she is involved in prostitution.

“They are women used in prostitution, but they are not prostitutes; children used in prostitution are not child prostitutes. One little girl, whose mother was Native, was sold at the age of 4, by her white father in exchange for a tattoo, and repeatedly sold after that,” Lopez said. “At age of 18, the girl was in prostitution. Somehow when a 17 year-old girl turns into an 18 year-old, we think it’s choice. It is really important to truly listen to the whole story and not label.”

Many young women were arrested for prostitution when still children. “It is ridiculous to label an 8 year old girl as a prostitute when it is paid rape,” Matthews said.

A full 42% of women reported racial verbal abuse by pimps and johns. Mathews said, “One woman said her buyer wanted her to dress up as Pocahontas and he wanted to be called John Smith, and we know she was 12 when she was trafficked from her home.”

In another instance, a woman reported that a john said to her, “I thought we killed all of you.” Matthews shuddered when she said, “To think there are people looking at our daughters and our women that way... that is what our women are dealing with every single day.”

The ethnicity of men who buy Native American women for prostitution is 78% White-European, 65% African American, 44% Latino, 24% Native American, and 9% Asian.

As many as 48% of the women had been placed in foster care; 52% of the women had been arrested as minors, and several had been arrested as prostitutes as children. 98% of the Native women interviewed had been or were currently homeless. Describing how they entered prostitution, 86% reported deception and trickery at the outset and 92% wanted to escape. Of the women interviewed, 48% had been used by 200 buyers, 16% over 900 buyers. 49% gave money to pimps, and 42% of trafficked victims were gang related. 84% were physically assaulted, 44 % by johns, 15% by pimps. 78% had been threatened by gun, knife or other weapon within the last month.

With assault being common, many women experienced disassociation including flash backs, dizziness, memory problems, and feeling as if they had left their body. Chronic health problems such as muscle aches and pains, memory problems, trouble concentrating, headaches and stomach aches were among them. Mental health diagnoses included depression and anxiety.

According to the report, victims of trafficking and prostitution needed different and expanded services including more culturally specific in-patient substance abuse treatment, housing and vocational counseling, and access to services that incorporate Native healing practices. Lopez said, “Any task force should include survivors of prostitution or trafficking, which will move the task force forward and will impact your community in such different ways.”

Sharing their thoughts for best case scenarios, the audience and presenters called for awareness and education, a hotline, educating young girls in the school system, funding, and safe houses.

Matthews said that many of the women had cousins, aunts, or mothers in prostitution and some were introduced by family members and said they were ashamed to seek services, “afraid we would look down on them.” Matthews said, “They didn’t feel like they wanted to have to educate a non-native advocate about their experience. None of the women we interviewed thought of prostitution as a job choice but as a lack of choices.”

Law enforcement wanted trafficked women to understand that they could turn to them for safety rather than fear of prosecution. Koliner said, “I want every resource these women can get hold of. It helps them and it helps our case, too. We have no incentive not to get these women access to every resource. There is no downside to referring to law enforcement but it is difficult to convince these young women of that.”

Matthews agreed but said, “There is a real big fear that comes with that.”

According to Dawn Stenberg, Human Trafficking Task Force chair in Sioux Falls, volunteer, the Junior League of Sioux Falls and the Sioux Falls Mita Maske (My Sister Friend’s Place) have committed to a three year public awareness campaign on sex trafficking. Billboards along the Interstates, educational curriculum and training volunteers to go into communities and create awareness are among the goals of the group.

The conference was sponsored by South Dakota Coalition Ending Domestic and Sexual Violence and Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains. The agency covers five states, and can be contacted through their website, or Carmen O’Leary, 605.850.1640 or 605.850.1332

(Contact Christina Rose at

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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