Understanding Indigenous Vulnerabilities to Human Trafficking
When it comes to human trafficking, there’s a long list of factors that can increase an individual’s vulnerability to experiencing it: housing insecurity, previous trauma, immigration status, substance use disorder, domestic violence, lack of access to resources in rural communities, and more. Plus, there can be a lack of understanding among first responders or service providers of what human trafficking is and how to identify it.
The Department of Justice Executive Office for United States Attorneys Bulletin on Human Trafficking reports that traffickers “target individuals they believe will be unable to escape, unwilling or too afraid to cooperate with law enforcement, and likely to be simply overlooked, forgotten, or ignored by society. To be marginalized is to be vulnerable—every minute of every day and at every turn. This truth is magnified in tribal communities where resources are scarce and help may be hours away.”
Native American populations face a greater risk of exploitation as a result of factors including a lack of employment opportunities, generational trauma, historical oppression, geographic isolation, oil and gas pipelines on Native land, lack of access to law enforcement, lack of human trafficking laws, mistrusts of systems, confusion about jurisdiction and sovereignty, cultural barriers, and poverty rates that are higher than in other parts of the United States. Kara Napolitano, our Research and Training Manager, weighs in: “Native American survivors of exploitation tend to lack access to justice of any kind, partially due to jurisdictional confusion and partially due to the lack of resources to support investigations in Indian country.”
Gina Lopez, Systems Response Program Director at Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA), works to address the visibility of Native American/Indigenous survivors and their communities—and hold agencies who serve these communities accountable for providing services in informed and honorable ways. She frames the historical context of exploitation in Native populations: “The trafficking and marketing of Indigenous bodies took place at the time of first interaction with colonization. The economic development of Indigenous communities through resource extraction, casinos, and trucking has and continues to invite points of entry for trafficking activities in our Indigenous homes and land.”
Gina explains how these industries fuel exploitation: “The workers of these industries take up temporary housing, and those circumstances have created the need for a supply of sex. The location of these temporary communities near Tribal communities that have been resource-poor and impoverished create a haven for the exploitation of people to feed that demand for sex. Families have taken part in the exploitation of each other in Tribal/Indigenous communities for many reasons, but mostly economic, for survival and substance use.”
Today, Colorado is home to about 200,000 indigenous people. They live on the Southern Ute and the Mountain Ute reservations, along the southern border of our state adjacent to the Navajo Nation, and in urban centers like Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo. Much of Colorado is ancestral land, and the indigenous identities are incredibly diverse: at least 48 federally recognized Sovereign Nations have historical ties to Colorado, and there are members of over 100 tribal nations living and thriving here today. Gina wants more Coloradans to know that “Native/Indigenous peoples exist outside reservations, they live in your neighborhood, and Native/Indigenous people enrich Colorado every single day.”
A Hub for the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Relatives Movement
Our team at the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking has developed relationships with the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA); Haseya, the only urban Native American-specific advocacy organization in Colorado with significant reach; and SASO, whose Regional Specialist provides human trafficking training and resources for survivors in the Four Corners region. These organizations and others from around the state have built a Murdered and Missing Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) grassroots movement, which we are proud to support as allies.
In 2022, LCHT testified in support of a bill that would create a Murdered and Missing Indigenous Relatives Office of Liaison housed in the Department of Public Safety. The creation of this new office is one step in the right direction of increasing the visibility of Native/Indigenous people, which Gina explains is the root issue of MMIR: “we are not noticed when we are missing, we are not investigated when we are murdered, and we are not given efforts to be returned home when our remains are found.”
We are looking forward to working with the full-time office staff member, a lived-experience director, and the MMIR Task Force to continue to improve outcomes for individuals, families, and communities. Gina explains that “historically for Native/Indigenous peoples, the Colorado territory has been a hub for trade and transport, as it continues to be today, and so to assume that Native/Indigenous people who experience being missing or murdered are not in some way interacting with this state would be wrong to believe.”
The new MMIR Office will help train law enforcement and victim advocates to better understand the cultural and traumatic complexities of exploitation and to respond to meet the cultural needs of the victims and their families. As a result, more survivors will be willing to participate in investigations… which will lead to more prosecutions of traffickers. Gina adds, “we must educate ourselves to this reality and push forward efforts instead of the knee-jerk reaction to drop our stories of survival and reports of violence. All victims of crime deserve response and justice.”
In 2017, the Navajo Nation became one of the few Tribes in the United States to address human trafficking as a matter of Tribal law. Gina shares that this “has been the kind of change and recognition that communities have long awaited. My Tribe does not have this law or any Tribal law that addresses domestic or sexual violence in our community, so I am hopeful that our leaders see that it is not only possible but also, critical that we similarly address violence like trafficking to protect our people.”
This Office could also “create centralized, evidence-based and culturally appropriate messaging for tribal communities and urban Indians like teaching young people how to be aware and stay safe online, how to vet potential employers, and how to recognize grooming,” says Kara.
Strengthening Anti-trafficking Efforts in Indigenous Communities
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to strengthen anti-trafficking efforts in Indigenous communities—from the ground up. Kara reflects, “Because there is so much historical and generational trauma and a resulting mistrust of systems outside tribal communities, there is a lot of trust building that needs to happen to even begin the conversation and start building awareness of the issue.”
Kara adds, “In spaces where exploitation is being identified, there are a dearth of resources, and especially culturally-appropriate resources for survivors. When this happens, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that survivors do not feel supported and sometimes return to their traffickers because of a lack of resources to support them in their long term survivorship.”
Outreach and education efforts should be applied at every opportunity. Gina explains, “There are many social events that take place year-round that these efforts could appropriately interact with Native American/Indigenous communities (Pow-wows, Tribal/Indigenous community-specific resource fairs and events, training collaborations, etc.).” Meaningful and intentional collaboration would allow for knowledge sharing about how trafficking shows up in communities, how to respond to this issue, and how to support survivors.
There’s a growing demand for training in Native communities: In 2022, the Southern Ute Reservation was one of the top ten locations where we facilitated trainings. The Four Corners Collaborative, a group of advocates, health care and behavioral health providers, law enforcement, and other service providers who come together quarterly to support each other, raise awareness about their programming, and learn together—have invited us to train the group and are increasing awareness of anti-trafficking efforts in the Four Corners region.
Learning from, listening to, and including indigenous communities, advocates, and especially individuals with lived experience in anti-trafficking efforts is vital to inform our understanding of the complexities of the challenge we’re up against. In the data collection phase for our soon-to-be-released research initiative, The Colorado Project 2023, two focus groups involving Native American partnerships were conducted. This input was key in highlighting the needs and priorities of Native communities. Gina hopes “that this report will open up and normalize continued communications across workgroups and with our Indigenous communities to walk together to address trafficking in our communities/lands.”
Including Native voices is critical to progress in the anti-trafficking movement. Gina says, “Every person, in any work position in an Indigenous community is an important lens to help understand trafficking and how it shows up or doesn’t, and each community is unique.” Kara adds, “No one can do this alone, and we are all operating with limited capacity. Working together and following the lead of indigenous communities to tell us what they need is the only way to make progress.”