Finding Little Help From the Federal Government, Tribes Are Making Their Own Ways to Fight Trafficking

At a January conference, Minnesota tribal police made it clear they are not waiting for permission from the federal government to move forward in protecting their members. They are not alone.

[Photo: A silhouette of a woman sitting next to a window.]
Native people experience several risk factors such as poverty, homelessness, sexual violence, and substance abuse that make them more vulnerable to becoming victims of sex trafficking. Shutterstock

Frustrated with the slow response of federal, state, and county law enforcement agencies to the devastating toll of sex trafficking in their communities, several Native tribes are addressing the problem for themselves.

“The U.S. government has forgotten about us for centuries. We are always last on the list when it comes to funding. Why should we wait for them to help us?“ asked Mike Diver, interim chief of the Fond du Lac tribal police department in Minnesota.

Diver made the remarks during a presentation at a January conference against sex trafficking in Indian Country held in Palm Springs, California. Coordinated by the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Violence Against Women, the meeting was the first national DOJ conference on sex trafficking in Indian Country, according to the DOJ in response to an email from Rewire.News.

Diver and fellow Fond du Lac police officer Kelly Haffield presented information at the conference about the new Minnesota tribal sex trafficking coalition, Tribes United Against Sex Trafficking (TRUST), comprised of representatives from the 11 Minnesota tribes.

Supported by a two-year grant from the Minnesota Department of Health, TRUST members are working on training tribal police, casino surveillance staff, and staff at local hotels to recognize instances of sex trafficking and help tribes create a coordinated method of responding to the crime and helping victims. Haffield serves as Fond du Lac’s representative with the TRUST coalition.

Accurate data about rates of sex trafficking in Indian Country is difficult to come by. The DOJ recently came under fire during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for its failure to collect data about this activity.

A March 2017 Government Accountability Office report about action needed to identify numbers of sex trafficking victims found that there were 14 investigations and only two federal prosecutions of sex trafficking in Indian Country between 2013 and 2016. The authors noted that this data fails to reflect the actual numbers of sex trafficking victims.

Haffield and others in tribal law enforcement say the 2016 findings from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) are better indicators of the numbers of victims of sex trafficking in Indian Country. “People are more likely to respond truthfully to a survey than during a police investigation,” noted Haffield. She explained that if people are not under the threat of criminal charges, they are less likely to withhold information.

NIJ’s 2016 report found that 84.3 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetimes. Over 56 percent are victims of sexual violence, and 96 percent of these victims experienced violence by non-Native perpetrators. Haffield noted that trafficking victims frequently fall into the victims of violence categories cited in the NIJ report.

TRUST coalition members are in the early stages of creating a unified response to sex trafficking in their communities. Although coalition members have yet to discuss enacting tribal laws, tribes have the option of writing their own law codes specifically addressing trafficking.

To date, four tribes—the Snoqualmie Tribe in Washington, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, the Fort Peck Tribes of the Assiniboine and Sioux in Montana, and the Navajo Nation of Arizona and New Mexico—are known to have passed their own laws prohibiting sex trafficking on their reservations.

The Navajo Nation passed their human trafficking law in August 2017. Nathaniel Brown, Navajo tribal council delegate, first introduced the legislation to the Navajo tribe in April 2017 after attending a conference with several other Arizona tribes coordinated by the Arizona Governor’s office.

“I saw that we have a breeding ground on Navajo for this crime. We have high rates of poverty, sexual violence, and drugs. Many of our people go missing. What we didn’t have was a word to describe sex trafficking,” Brown said.

“We are hearing stories in our communities about gang activity. Some Navajo people have come forward with stories about being taken by sex traffickers,” he added.

At first, leaders were reluctant to believe that sex trafficking was occurring on the Navajo reservation, explained Brown.

“Members of the Navajo Law and Order Committee told us since we had no data, the crime didn’t exist. So the law was rejected,” Brown said.

Brown went back to meet with members of the Sexual Assault Prevention Subcommittee. “We put our heads together with Eric Gale of the Navajo Department of Social Services,” Brown said.

“Eric helped us explain [to the Law and Order Committee] that we don’t know how many cases of sex trafficking aren’t being reported and we currently have no way to collect or compile data,” Brown noted.

In August 2017, Navajo President Russell Begaye signed the Navajo Nation law against human trafficking. The law expressly criminalizes traffickers and creates a category under which to gather data relating to trafficking. In the past, trafficking activities may have been included under arrests or investigations of prostitution or sexual abuse. To date, there have been no arrests under the sex trafficking law.

According to Brown, the Nation intends to use the law to charge non-Native people who may be engaged in sex trafficking on the reservation.

If used to charge and prosecute non-Natives, this law presents a direct challenge to the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Oliphant v. Suquamish, in which tribes lost the authority to prosecute non-Natives in Indian Country. No tribe has yet successfully overturned the Oliphant v. Suquamish decision. The Navajo are clearly taking a national stand.

“We are a sovereign nation. We will continue to fight against these outdated laws made by non-Native people. We want to make our laws more powerful to help Native people,” Brown stated.

In an emailed response to questions from Rewire.News about the Navajo Nation’s intent to prosecute non-Natives under the new law, Wyn Hornbuckle, deputy director of the DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs, wrote, “Regarding the Navajo Nation, we’re aware of the report and will decline to comment at this time.”

It’s clear, however, that tribes are not waiting for permission from the federal government to move forward in protecting their members.

Speaking Out to Help Others

Deanndra Yazzie, 19, of the Navajo or Dine’ tribe described via telephone interview with Rewire.News her ordeal when she was lured into the car of an alleged serial rapist in December 2017. The man, who allegedly kidnapped and assaulted her for several days, told her he was going to force her into sex trafficking, Yazzie said.

After Yazzie moved to Phoenix from the town of Chinle, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation, she lost her job and struggled with drug use. She was homeless when some non-Native women she thought were friends invited her to join them on a trip to the grocery store in the car of a man who was a stranger to Yazzie.

The car stopped abruptly and the friends jumped out. One said to her as she exited, “Hey, you’re a pretty girl; you should talk him into giving you some money.”

Suddenly Yazzie was alone with the man, who locked the doors. Tightening her seat belt, he pulled out a gun and pointed it at her head, she said. “If you try anything I’m going to kill you,” he told her, Yazzie recalled.

For the next 48 hours, the man kept her locked in his home where he alternately beat and raped her, she said, sometimes burning her with a meth pipe. Yazzie said he injected her with drugs to keep her quiet and told her of his plans to traffic her out to others for money.

When he spoke of driving to the store, she convinced him to take her along. The moment he took his eyes away, she jumped out of the car and rushed into a convenience store screaming for the clerk to call the police. Frightened, the man drove away.

Although the clerk ignored her pleas to call police, she made her way to a friend’s house. Later police tracked her down and took her report. Police arrested and charged 33-year-old Jonathan Rouzan, accusing him of kidnapping, burning, and assaulting Yazzie, as well as three other women in separate incidents.

“I had really bad PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] after the attack and started using heroin heavy,” she said. Eventually, finding herself sick with no money to buy more drugs, she walked to a local hospital and went into the detox unit.

“I’m going to counseling now and doing better,” she said.

Yazzie told Rewire.News that she is speaking out publicly about her ordeal to help others. “No one wants to talk to the police; they call you a snitch if you do,” Yazzie said.

She has shared her story with other media, including the Navajo Times.

“In the Navajo tradition, women are supposed to be private. Talking about something like this is seen as flaunting yourself,” she said. But each time she tells her story she grows stronger. “A huge weight comes off me.”

“Maybe it will help other women come forward and tell their stories,” Yazzie said. Moreover, Yazzie hopes her story helps put a stop to men like Rouzan who prey on women like her.

Dismantling “Sex Trafficking Circuits”

Native people experience several risk factors such as poverty, homelessness, sexual violence, and substance abuse that make them more vulnerable to becoming victims of sex trafficking. Traffickers also target Native people because they are easy to market as exotic or as representatives of other races, according to law enforcement.

Sex trafficking, by definition of Minnesota state law, is a problem in the Fond du Lac community, where Interim Chief of Police Diver and Patrol Officer Haffield have found that the majority of women arrested for drug offenses on the Fond du Lac Reservation admitted to being coerced to exchange sex for drugs.

“Sex trafficking and drugs go hand in hand. Drugs offer a means to control victims,” according to Diver.

Minnesota has become a leader in the nation in its response to sex trafficking perpetrators and victims. Minnesota state law defines trafficking as “receiving, recruiting, enticing, harboring, providing, or obtaining by any means an individual to aid in the prostitution of the individual” or “receiving profit or anything of value, knowing or having reason to know it is derived from [sex trafficking].” The state also enacted a Safe Harbor law, a victim-centered law that excludes juveniles engaged in sex work from prosecution and includes a service model called No Wrong Door, aimed at ensuring that all people who enter the system, via law enforcement or social services, are offered victims services.

Minnesota is also a public law 280 state. Under this law, states in which tribes are located have primary responsibility to prosecute crimes on reservations.

Although tribal leadership may shy away from connection in the public eye between tribal casinos and sex trafficking, it is a problem that tribes now realize needs to be addressed, according to tribal law enforcement representatives at the conference.

“The casinos and reservations are in fact part of sex trafficking circuits,” Diver said.

The 11 tribes in Minnesota operate a total of 14 casinos. Most have hotels attached to the properties.

“Before I understood how to recognize the signs of sex trafficking, I never would have thought in a million years that it was present in my community,” Diver said.

For instance, casino staff now take notice when a young woman from three states away accompanying an older man checks into a casino hotel without any luggage. “When tribal police check up on these women sometimes we find they have no identification and no additional clothing beyond several pairs of underwear and bras,” Diver said.

Tribal police are finding that traffickers move women and girls continuously through the casinos. “New girls mean new customers; the girls are so terrified of their pimps that they seldom disclose anything against them,” Diver said.

Traffickers also recruit Native people from reservations where vulnerable victims of sexual violence and/or drug users make easy targets. “The stories are usually similar. A young person, often a victim of sexual violence already, gets involved with drugs, runs away with a ‘boyfriend’ who is selling drugs. The boyfriend begins pimping the person out,” Diver said.

Many traffickers are lured to reservations by the belief that all Native people receive large per-capita casino payments from their tribes. Thus potential victims provide traffickers with the additional allure of having cash that can be extorted from them. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allows tribes to issue per-capita payments to members from casino funds, but only about half of the tribes offering payouts distribute the large windfalls often featured in media.

Most payouts are minimal, amounting to less than $1,000 per year.

“I guarantee that there are criminals in Chicago, Milwaukee, and other major cities who know exactly when members receive their per cap payments, “ Haffield said.

Criminals may also be aware that law enforcement resources are scarce in Indian Country. The Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) was enacted in 2010 as a means for the federal government to help and support tribes in policing, prosecuting, and providing victims services for tribal citizens. But, according to a 2017 report by the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) regarding the DOJ’s enforcement of TLOA, law enforcement remains severely inadequate in Indian Country, limiting tribes’ ability to address crime. The OIG report exposes the DOJ’s failure to meet some of the most basic mandates of TLOA. Limited resources and geographic isolation are significant challenges for tribal communities in addressing crime.

One solution to this trafficking-associated problem may lie in the fine print of regulations of tribal lands. Carla Fredericks of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation (MHA) published a paper with colleagues from the American Indian Law Clinic at University of Colorado suggesting that tribes could make use of their regulatory authority over companies doing business on the reservation. For instance, the Fort Berthold reservation—home to the MHA tribe, which oversees leasing to non-Native owned companies of its oil and gas holdings—in North Dakota has extensive lands included in the Bakken oil boom development. And crime rates in the Bakken region are rising. In 2013, the number of people charged in federal courts in the region rose by 31 percent.

Tribes could potentially increase taxes for corporations doing business on their lands to help cover the costs of additional law enforcement and victims services associated with increased crime on the reservation. In their paper, the authors point to a U.S. State Department report about the link between extractive industries and sex trafficking. Due to insufficient funding, tribal law enforcement is woefully unprepared to address rising crime rates.

The disparity between law enforcement resources for tribes and the rest of the United States is glaring. For instance, according to a 2013 report, “A Roadmap for Making Native America Safer,” created by the Indian Law and Order Commission, the national average ratio of law enforcement officers to residents in rural areas is 3.5 per 1,000 residents. Indian Country, however, was staffed at 1.9 officers per 1,000 residents in 2013; tribal governments do not receive comparable federal financial support for law enforcement as do surrounding states and counties.

And according to a 2016 University of Colorado report, “MHA Nation law enforcement does not currently have the jurisdiction or capacity to address this burgeoning problem, along with the traffic violations and regulatory issues that have increased with development. At the most basic level, there are not enough officers to effectively police the vast stretches of the reservation …. While the MHA Nation desires to protect their community by preventing trafficking and holding offenders accountable, the limits imposed by federal Indian law restrain their ability to act decisively and effectively.”

As Native leaders await change at the state and federal levels, tribal law enforcement sent a strong message during the Palm Springs conference. They are not waiting for the federal government to take action against sex traffickers in their communities.

“Our main goal is to help tribal nations and victims,” Diver noted.