POPLAR, Montana — Over 200 people gathered in Bismarck, North Dakota, last week for the first summit hosted by FUSE — Force to end Human Sexual Exploitation, a coalition formed earlier this year in response to a growing concern statewide: human trafficking.
During the two-day summit, speakers from various agencies — including women’s services groups, law enforcement and non-governmental organizations — shared their knowledge of and experience with the rising number of cases of human trafficking across the state, especially in areas around the Bakken shale formation, where fracking operations are drawing thousands of mostly male workers.
“We’re doing our best working with state and federal partners,” said Linda Thompson, who attended the Bismarck summit as executive director of the North Dakota-based First Nations Women’s Alliance (FNWA), a group focused on fighting sexual assault and domestic assault among tribal communities.
In addition to the increase in human trafficking, Thompson told MintPress News that the FNWA and other groups are also hearing “about new drugs, addictions and suicide. It’s almost like a perfect storm.”
When FUSE formed earlier this year, it joined five groups — FNWA, Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota, North Dakota Women’s Network, the National Association of Social Workers-North Dakota, and the Council on Abused Women’s Services North Dakota — to explore ways to be more effective and pool their resources.
“We were looking for ways to join forces around this so we could be more effective together,” Tim Hathaway, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota, told the Bismarck Tribune in June.
Though statistics showing a growing trend of human trafficking in the state are limited, victims’ advocates and experts say that the region’s oil boom has highlighted the issue of prostitution — an industry that most enter under force or coercion, but rarely willingly. This has been especially important to the state’s tribal communities, which have populations of young people who are most at-risk of falling prey to traffickers.
Minique S. Crump, an FBI spokeswoman, told MintPress that the Criminal Investigative Division that covers Indian reservations “do not have any indication at this time that global criminal elements are involved in the exploitation of Native Americans for forced labor or sexual exploitation.”
“That’s not to say we will not see an increase in human trafficking activity due to the influx of oil field workers within the Bakken area,” she added.
Fracking and the man camps
North Dakota isn’t the only state trying to handle the issues that the regional oil boom has brought with it, as Montana and South Dakota are also nestled atop the Bakken shale formation.
South Dakota’s U.S. Attorney Brendan V. Johnson’s annual report in 2012 said, “We have seen a 30‐percent increase in human trafficking cases filed over the past three years.”
“South Dakota has not been immune from this epidemic,” the report continues. “We have seen young girls recruited from our communities and then ‘groomed’ by pimps to perform commercial sex acts. The girls quickly find themselves locked into a world of violence and degradation, but threats, fraud and coercion from the pimps make it extremely difficult for them to leave.”
In August, Montana Sen. Jon Tester held a listening session at Fort Peck Community College in Poplar, Montana, to respond to the escalating crime figures in the areas around the Bakken oil project.
“Tribal police departments lack the resources to investigate and detain human trafficking offenders. By no fault of their own, these departments are often ill-equipped to root out the players in trafficking rings that can span reservation, state, and national boundaries,” Tester said. “Because of the patchwork of tribal, state, and federal jurisdiction, tribes also often lack the ability to prosecute and appropriately punish offenders in tribal courts.”
Tester co-sponsored the latest reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which will be effective in 2015. It contains an amendment that expands protections for Native women, especially in terms allowing tribes to arrest non-Natives who commit crimes on tribal land.
Yet, he also noted, “there is so much more to do.”
Eastern Montana’s Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Office, where the Fort Peck Indian Reservation is located, has just 10 deputies covering a region roughly the size of Delaware. Tina Bets His Medicine, an administrative assistant and victims’ advocate for the sheriff’s office, said there’s been an increase in crimes such as domestic violence, drug possession and bar fights since the man camps — the temporary housing compounds for transient workers — formed with the Keystone XL pipeline bringing in workers.
“Our sex offender list has quadrupled,” she told MintPress. “We’re getting a lot of workers on parole or on probation.”
Medicine said the term “trafficking” is often confused with “smuggling.”
“Trafficking means any unwilling participant who is forced into work or prostitution,” she said. “We’re not seeing an increase in trafficking in Montana, but it’s possible, being this close to the Canadian border and with all these workers coming into the state now.”
Janet Routzen, executive director of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society, an advocacy group serving victims in south-central South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux community since 1977, networks with other local, state and national agencies.
“A lot of our problems has to do with the influx of strangers into our communities,” Routzen said. “We’re isolated. Rosebud’s nearest Wal-Mart is 100 miles. A hospital and major shopping is 200 miles. These guys can seem alluring to someone who has no food or other hope of surviving.”
Routzen, who is also a member of the Rosebud community, told MintPress that the man camps pose a threat to Indian Country as well as small towns. Camps bringing in thousands of transient workers for the Keystone XL oil pipeline would be located less than 30 miles from the Rosebud community, less than 50 miles from the Yankton community, and 10 miles from the Cheyenne River Sioux community. (MintPress spoke to Routzen prior to the Senate voting down the Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday.)
Sabrina King, a lobbyist and organizer with Dakota Rural Action, noted in a 2013 gathering that TransCanada had purchased 99 percent of easement leases needed to build the pipeline through South Dakota.
Also last year, Women of the Brave Heart Society and the Ihanktkownwan (Yankton Sioux) Treaty Council hosted “Protect the Women and Families from the KXL [Keystone XL pipeline] Violence! Say no to Man Camps in Oceti Sakowin Territory!”
During the two-day conference, Native and non-Native speakers shared concerns about the environmental, social, sexual, tribal and social justice effects of extractive industries such as fracking and pipelines.
“They treat Mother Earth like they treat women,” said Lisa Brunner, White Earth Ojibwe, Program Specialist for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. “They think they can own us, buy us, sell us, trade us, rent us, poison us, rape us, destroy us, use us as entertainment and kill us. I’m happy to see that we are talking about the level of violence that is occurring against Mother Earth because it equates to us. What happens to her happens to us.”
Advocates Melissa Merrick from Spirit Lake and Sadie Young Bird from Fort Berthold said the number of sexual assaults, domestic violence and sex trafficking incidents in North Dakota has tripled since 2008.
Culturally relevant healing
At the August listening session, Sen. Tester noted that limited treatment options available to victims also represent a major problem.
“The survivors are often children or young adults from impoverished homes with broken family ties. Help for them is rarely available in the Native community—or even within a manageable drive,” he said.
Victims in the Fort Berthold Reservation must drive several hours to either Minot or Bismarck to have a rape kit performed — and advocates say this is only the first step in a long process of healing.
Routzen, the Rosebud community member and victims’ advocate, said steps toward healing require securing housing and support services for victims for at least a year, in addition to any treatment they may need for drug or alcohol dependency or mental illness. Victims can’t move forward until they feel stable, she said.
“It’s the old story of prostitution,” Routzen said. “We tend to think it’s their choice. A lot has to do with getting trapped in situations. I got calls from a young girl. In this conversation, the mother is addicted to meth and was placing her child up for sale. When it is such a situation day to day and a child doesn’t have shoes or food, a parent may head for the street and become additionally traumatized.”
Yet, as the FNWA’s Thompson says, there are other areas of healing from a Native perspective: “It’s so internal and deep. We can include ceremony to get someone ready, including sweat lodge, different medicines, a sense of pride about their heritage.”
“Sexual survivors retreat in need of culturally relevant healing,” Routzen said. “How do we use our plants, our prayers, our spirituality to restore them?”
From law enforcement and the courts, to advocates who help healing in gender-specific ways, every element of the partnership is needed, Thompson says.
“In our community, we’re the first responders,” she said. “We need to know how to identify vulnerabilities and be ready for them.”
In the past, blame was put on the victims, she said, and the shift now is to hold up the traffickers who are committing these crimes against girls, boys, women and men not just around the Bakken, but around the world.
Routzen echoed this notion, noting, “Where’s the justice in blaming someone who is beaten, coerced and threatened?”
“Victims need to hear us say ‘I believe you,’” she said. “Many victims never hear that. Or they blame themselves and get stuck in the guilt and shame. Who wants to go in front of a courtroom or family and tell about being used in such an intimate manner?”