This fall the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs heard testimony on S. 1942 – Savanna’s Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) directing the U.S. Attorney General to review, revise, and develop law enforcement and justice protocols appropriate to address missing and murdered American Indians, and aiming to increase the response to violence perpetuated in Native communities by improving coordination and communication among Federal, State, Tribal, and local law enforcement agencies. The bill’s namesake, Savanna La-Fontaine-Greywind, was murdered in August 2017 when she was eight months pregnant.
Unfortunately, the violence displayed in Savanna’s murder plagues other indigenous women. Eighty-four percent of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime. On some reservations, indigenous women are murdered at rates ten times the national average. Indigenous women are going missing and being murdered at alarming rates in both the United States and Canada. Senator Heitkamp talked with experts and advocates dedicated to end the violence against Native women in a recent episode of her podcast “The Hotdish” and launched a social media campaign #NotInvisible to keep the issue in public consciousness.
Recently, efforts to combat the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women have focused in on anti-trafficking initiatives. Human trafficking involves the exploitation of a person typically through force, fraud, or coercion for such purposes as forced labor, commercial sex, or involuntary servitude. The two primary types of human trafficking are sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Looking locally, a 2015 research study out of the University of San Diego found that in the last eight years, an estimated 1,766 sex trafficking victims have had contact with San Diego law enforcement each year, and an additional 120 domestic violence cases involved suspected sex trafficking. Moreover, a labor trafficking study in 2012 estimated there are nearly 40,000 victims of labor trafficking in San Diego County.
The numbers for American Indian or Alaska Native victims are harder to collect and share as discussed in two U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Reports released this year: 1. Human Trafficking: Action Needed to Identify the Number of Native American Victims Receiving Federally-funded Services, and 2. Human Trafficking: Information on Cases in Indian Country or that Involved Native Americans. The reports also revealed that barriers to victim reporting and participation in investigation include shame and risk of persecution of the victim.
Organizations like Free to Thrive help alleviate some of those barriers. Free to Thrive works with trafficking survivors to resolve legal issues and connects them to social, medical, and mental health services through the Free to Thrive Legal Clinic. Procopio supports Free to Thrive and its clients by providing the organization donated office space and equipment and representing Free to Thrive clients pro bono.
Tribal Nations and organizations are also doing important work to protect trafficking victims. Just this year, the Navajo Nation passed anti-trafficking legislation, amending their criminal code. Tribal Coalitions work to increase awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault, including sex trafficking and stalking, and provide technical assistance to coalition membership. In California, Strong Hearted Native Women’s Coalition, works with nine tribes in North San Diego County. For more information on Tribal Coalitions and other sex trafficking in Indian country resources, visit www.tribaltrafficking.org.
Though the fight to protect indigenous women continues, advocates are making strides in providing needed services to trafficking victims and raising awareness to ensure that efforts to combat the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women do not fade.
Heather Torres (San Ildefonso Pueblo, Navajo) is a Procopio Native American Intern from 2016. Currently, she is a UC President’s Public Service Law Fellow for the Tribal Law and Policy Institute in West Hollywood.
Jamie Quient is President and Managing Attorney of Free to Thrive, a nonprofit organization that empowers human trafficking survivors to be free from exploitation and thrive by providing them with legal services and other support. Prior to launching Free to Thrive, she practiced civil litigation at Procopio.