Human trafficking steals the freedom of individuals, families and communities for profit. The problem affects all races, creeds, ages and demographics, and some more than others. Four out of five Aboriginal women will be victims of a violent crime (rape, murder, trafficking, kidnapping, sexual assault) in their lifetime. Most of the time, the perpetrators of these crimes are non-natives. Ninety-six percent of victims were assaulted by someone unrelated to a tribal nation, according to the US National Institute of Justice. With very little data on missing and murdered Indigenous people, available statistics are likely understated across the country. In 2016 alone, only 116 Indigenous missing person cases were recorded by the Department of Justice’s NamUs program, out of more than 5,000 missing person cases.
“…intergenerational and historical trauma has existed for hundreds of years within our tribal communities. It is therefore essential to understand this history, as well as the impact of complex trauma on survivors of human trafficking, to support their healing process. And if someone goes missing, we have a protocol that we will follow. And we will work with area law enforcement, area response teams, and we, victim services, will work with the family. So we have these teams that we form so that we don’t waste time.– Carole LaPointe, Team Leader Niimigimiwang Transitional Home
In 2019, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Tribal Council (KBIC) proclaimed May Month, specifically May 5, a day and month to raise awareness about the epidemic of missing and murdered women on and around reservations. at national scale. The community is not exempt from this problem. Although the statistics are not as high as in different regional areas, it does happen. Intergenerational and historical trauma has existed for hundreds of years within tribal communities. Understanding this history as well as the impact of complex trauma on survivors of human trafficking is key to supporting their healing process. As victim service providers, they see how victimization due to human trafficking, stalking, domestic and sexual violence overlap, with the most common mechanism being: interpersonal violence and control, grooming, and alcohol/drug abuse.
It is essential to understand the interrelationship between risk factors, as well as the speed and subliminal nature of human trafficking. By identifying prevention methods, local resources and services for victims, the hope is to mitigate the risks of victims being coerced into trafficking and possibly prevent such incidents from occurring.
Common perceptions of where these crimes against Native Americans take place are also wrong. The majority of Native American kidnappings and murders occur off reservations, often in urban areas and cities. But that doesn’t mean rural communities don’t play a role in how people are moved from state to state. LaPointe mentions that KBIC has seen a number of victims in their shelter since the start of their program, coming from western areas and escaping as they crossed the Upper Peninsula, all too often although the victims have not not so lucky.
Some risk factors that increase a person’s likelihood of falling victim to these situations include drug abuse, lack of stable income, generational trauma, and lack of understanding of tribal lifestyles. Victims can be drugged with substances such as Rohypnol or GHB, two common date rape drugs, which make the victim drowsy and sometimes lose consciousness.
“That’s what the traffickers do, they inject them with drugs. They [victims] may not even know they are doing this. And very quickly, they are like other survivors or victims of trafficking. So I would say poverty is another reason or a risk factor, and intergenerational trauma is the biggest factor.– Carole LaPointe, Team Leader Niimigimiwang Transitional Home
Currently in Michigan, the NamUs database lists eight Indigenous people who are currently missing, one unidentified and one unclaimed. These numbers are likely understated for the number of missing victims in the state. But it’s hard to say for sure, with so little data available on the victims. Acknowledging and addressing the historical oppression of Native Americans by country and state is a first step in bridging the gap between missing persons demographics. Of course, ideally, these crimes will never happen again. But acknowledging the past and planning for a more supportive future will be key to finding victims and reuniting them with their families and communities. As well as finding closure for those who will never be seen again.
The Keweenaw Bay Indian community operates a victim services program and a halfway house. It is one of 50 in the United States, supporting the country’s more than 560 tribes. The good news is that more funds for halfway houses and victim services are on the way, with new legislation created by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in March.
For the local community, taking note of suspicious activity and reporting it to law enforcement is the best way to help victims get out of trafficking. LaPointe recounted one such incident, where she noticed a victim in a restaurant with traffickers. Noted the time, who was seated at the table, and discreetly took a photo to provide information to the authorities. NEVER come into contact with traffickers; this can put the victim in a more harmful situation than what is already happening. Include the day, time, location, type and color of clothing, and a physical description of the trafficker(s) and the victim. If you see anything suspicious, report it to the local Customs Immigration and Homeland Security Investigations offices by calling 1-866-347-2423.
Niimigimiwang Halfway House
Special thanks to Carole LaPointe for her collaboration in this public education effort.