Operation Lady Justice
TRIGGER WARNING: SEX TRAFFICKING, PROSTITUTION
I can remember, as a young girl, I wanted to go to college and become a teacher. However, I didn’t just want to teach in a regular school. I wanted to help children on Indian Reservations. My empathy for Native Americans is a strong one. My mother, who is part Native American, was put in an orphanage when she was seven.
My grandparents were both alcoholics, as was my great grandmother. They lived in the hills of Altoona, Pennsylvania. Whenever the three adults would get drunk, they left my mother and her three brothers to fend for themselves. The kids hunted squirrels for food and frequently did not have a warm coat to wear in the winter.
My grandfather worked deep in the bowels of the earth, shoveling coal. One cold winter day, he came home to find all four children out on the front porch of their tiny shack. My great grandmother and grandmother were entertaining men inside, and the children had gotten in the way. He had no other choice but to put them in a Catholic charity home.
All four children were separated, and it wasn’t until they became adults did they reconnect with each other. Their life was tough growing up in the Catholic orphanage. The nuns were cruel, and because they were half breeds, it entitled them to a brutal lifestyle. They were beaten regularly, had their heads dipped in scalding hot water, and their bodies scrubbed down with stiff-bristled scrub brushes. They became slaves to the nuns, mopping floors, cleaning toilets with toothbrushes, and endless amounts of laundry. There was no playtime — no toys or dolls for my mother, or toy trucks for her brothers.
Life was hard. They lived in poverty and hopelessness. My mother wonders where her life would have ended up if her aunt had not rescued her. Shortly after moving into her new home, it became evident the reason her aunt came for her. She became their slave. Taking care of the household didn’t just mean cleaning; it included cooking. She went to school, but when they told her she would have to earn money to wear a bra or to buy sanitary napkins for herself, she dropped out in the ninth grade.
She started working at a local creamery. She met my father, a handsome Italian man who wore an Air force uniform. They knew each other two months when my father proposed, offering her a better life in New York. She took it.
When I first came across an article about Native American women and sex trafficking, it wrenched my stomach. The more research I did, the more it disturbed me. This problem had existed since the 1500s. When the Europeans came over and drove the American Indians off their lands, they were pillaged and raped; captured and enslaved; massacred.
I couldn’t believe it was still going on today in every aspect — my bubble burst. A friend of mine works with Dakota youth on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. I became involved in helping raise money for Indian children and their schools. However, I was shocked to learn the exact statistics of what happens to their young girls in the 21st century. It was how I met Lisa Brunner.
Lisa Brunner has been an active advocate in the sex trafficking of Native American women for many years. She lives on a reservation in the Dakotas. She is educated and wants to end the violence perpetrated against her sisters. The young girls in Lisa’s tribe look up to her and see her as a role model.
Lisa travels all over the world to meet with other advocates and government officials discussing ways to end the violence against Native American women. In the summer of 2017, Lisa, along with her seventeen-year-old son, found themselves in Oslo, Norway. A summit hearing was held to discuss the success of the Nordic Model.
The Nordic Model, also known as the Sex Buyer Law, decriminalizes prostitution and criminalizes the act of buying people for sex. This plan is implemented by Sweden, Norway, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
Lisa told me the following story from her trip, “As a Native American woman, I normally do not feel safe traveling alone, so I bring my seventeen-year-old son with me. One day, after the summit talks, we decided to take in some sights in the city of Oslo. We found ourselves in a little town square with cobblestone streets and outdoor cafés. Walking by one of the cafes, my son and I had noticed three large men sitting outside, two black men and one white man. As we approached, I could feel their eyes devouring every part of my body, making me very uncomfortable. We decided to go to a different café across from where these men were sitting.
While enjoying our lunch, a young girl from Nigeria was walking with her mother and older sister. The weather was beautiful, and they seemed to be enjoying each other’s company. They were engaged in a conversation, laughing and smiling as they walked along the cobblestones. It didn’t take long for one of the black men to get up from his seat and walk over to the young girl who looked to be around fourteen. As he joined the three of them, his attention was on the young girl.
I noticed he was rubbing his hand up and down her back. My stomach churned while watching this brazen act, and I began to feel nauseous. Her body language told me she was not comfortable with this man touching her. I could see the fear in her facial expression. I overheard him say to her, ‘Are you for sale?’ Pulling away from him, the young girl reached for her mother as she vehemently told him she was not for sale.
All three women scurried out of the area. Walking back to his friends, laughing, I overheard him telling them, ‘I guess she’s not for sale.’ I, myself, was visibly shaken by witnessing this encounter, as was my son. He told me then, and there I was not to go anywhere without him.”
The statistics speak for themselves on the horrors these women face on a daily basis. One in three Native American women are raped; six in ten are physically assaulted; and the murder rate for Native women is ten times more than the national average. Native Americans have the highest dropout rate from high school. They have the highest homeless, runaway, and thrown away youth in shelters than any other group nationwide.
Native Americans have the highest percentage of children involved in the welfare system; most young girls have been sexually assaulted or abused by someone in their family. The majority are either drug users or become drug-addicted. Many young girls believe it is a “career choice” for them because their mother or grandmother were prostitutes. The most significant cause of all this is poverty and history.
Native women in Duluth, Minnesota, are incredibly vulnerable to being lured into prostitution. Generations of them have sold themselves to survive. Mary Annette Pember, a writer with Indian Country Today, told a compelling story about three generations of Native women who have sold themselves out to prostitution to survive. Mary and her mother, Ruth, are two Native American women who survived the life of a “boat whore.” The citizens of Duluth fear to talk about it, and feel it might infect them somehow, so they sweep it under the carpet saying, “boys will be boys.”
“The story of the boat whore has been like a queer kind of natural disaster that visits destruction on the powerless yet holds them responsible,” says Pember.
The story of Mary starts from her birth. She was one of 21 children conceived through her mother’s liaisons with seamen. Her exposure to the “life” was an accident. She was 15, broke, and homeless, standing on the street with a girlfriend when a Pakistani man approached them. He invited the girls onboard his boat, and thus began her life on the ships. She would meet seamen in Duluth and accompany them back to their quarters. Mary would have sex with them and other crew members in exchange for food, money, drinks, and a place to stay. Most times, she remained on the ships as they sailed from port to port. Life on the boats was a nonstop party, claims Mary. The seamen treated her better than her white foster parents.
Things changed after September 11, 2001. Mary found herself being pimped out by an older white woman and her husband, who owned a bar. She says she drank all the time and took care of the bar’s customers in exchange for food, lodging, childcare, and alcohol. She desperately wanted out of the life of prostitution. It wasn’t until Mary got very sick and put into a nursing home that her time as a prostitute ended.
Mary, 51, now lives in a small but comfortable house overlooking the shimmering, clear waters of Lake Superior. Advocates say that Mary’s ability to normalize her life as a child prostitute is common among Native girls frequently exposed to sexual abuse and violence.
The research concluded by Minnesota’s Indian Women’s Resource Center reported Native girls and women who exchange sex for food and shelter don’t consider the acts to be prostitution. They imply doing what they have to do to stay alive, engaging in survival sex.
Mary worries about her daughter, who, at the age of 14, began her life with a pimp so she could have cute clothes to wear. No matter what she tells her daughter, her answer is, “look at you – you did the same thing!” Mary has gone from child prostitute to survivor, to advocate. Today, Mary focuses her time on spreading the word about the dangers of sex trafficking. She claims for a long time she didn’t care about anything but now feels she is getting her groove back.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to my mother if she had not met my father when she did. Would she have turned to prostitution eventually? According to the stats, it’s entirely possible. She could be considered a throwaway youth. She endured years of physical and emotional abuse, dropping out of school, and living in poverty.
For me, growing up and listening to the horrific details of my mother’s young life has caused me to empathize with Native American women. After meeting and speaking with Lisa, it has reiterated the need to educate people on this troubling problem. Do I think the Nordic Model would work here? I don’t know. Much research will need to go into such a program before implementing it in the United States.
President Donald Trump, last Tuesday, signed an executive order, Operation Lady Justice, a White House task force on missing and murdered indigenous women. Though this mostly invisible crisis has been occurring for decades, it has finally reached the eyes of policymakers. This new team will develop protocols to be used in new and unsolved cases as well as create a team to review cold cases.
We may not be able to change history; however, we can change the poverty status of all Native American Indians living on reservations. Let’s keep our eyes open.