The opening of the Pathfinder Center on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation in July 2017. Photo: Pathfinder Center a program of Wiconi Wawokiya, Inc.

Mary Annette Pember: New center offers support for victims of sex trafficking

A converted motel on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation in South Dakota is helping victims of sex trafficking thanks to the efforts of Lisa Heth and Wiconi Wawokiy. Independent journalist Mary Annette Pember reports on the opening of The Pathfinder Center:
It started as an unwanted, quixotic mission, but Lisa Heth couldn’t quit it. Although she’d long wanted to create programming and a shelter to serve Native American victims of sex trafficking, buying a decaying 1970s motel was definitely not part of her dream.

The Pathfinder Center opened in July on the Crow Creek reservation and, like so many other impossible dreams here, was fueled primarily by grassroots dedication and spirit. Its mission is to provide refuge for victims of sex trafficking from all over South Dakota, both Native and non-Native.

Most mainstream shelters aren’t equipped to serve sex trafficking victims. Their needs – such as longer-term housing, emotional and mental healthcare as well as addiction counseling – are beyond the resources of the average refuge.

In this case, a long-passed generation of Native American women suffered the shame and degradation of sexual violence and sex trafficking that their descendants still suffer today. It is they in particular who need providers to understand the role historical trauma plays in their recovery.

Heth often worried about the lack of resources for trafficking victims, but back in March 2015 she was occupied with more immediate needs: finding funding for shelters serving children and victims of domestic violence. She was frantically working the phones looking for funding when a man called to ask if her organization, Wiconi Wawokiya (Helping Families), wanted to buy his motel.

She can’t recall why, but she agreed to drive out and see the property.

It was one of those third-rate family-run motels. Now vacant, the building had been for sale for a long time. “A voice in my head told me that we could use the motel to shelter sex trafficking victims,” she recalled.

“I thought, that’s crazy! We don’t have the money or resources to buy and fix this old place. Why am I even thinking this?”

Read More on the Story:
Mary Annette Pember: Can this South Dakota shelter heal the centuries-long trauma of Native women? (The Guardian September 2, 2017)