Roots of the Crisis

The investigative work of today is not just for those who are being hurt now — it is for ancestors and to prevent harm to those who are on their way.
Chris Stark. Photo by Sarah Whiting

Trigger warning — This story contains graphic depictions of sexual violence.

The history of Indigenous people on this land is told through our stories and ceremonies, and spoken across kitchen tables.

My primary research is gathering an aspect of Indigenous history long-ignored and shamed. Sex trafficking has been and remains central to the colonization of Indigenous people. Currently, it is a multi- billion-dollar industry rooted in white supremacy, misogyny, and violence.

In 2011, I was part of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition and Prostitution Research & Education’s research team for the report, “Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota.” This was the second research report conducted in the U.S. on the trafficking of Indigenous women.

An impetus to develop “Garden of Truth” was the many stories about Anishinaabe women disappearing on ships that supported industries docked in Duluth ports.

Hearing the stories about women on ships led to my exploratory research project. I interviewed Indigenous women and men who said they had been bought and sold on the ships, or had relatives on the ships. (Exploitation on Duluth ships dates back at least to 1903.) Most of the women I talked with were living in homeless shelters and suffering from trauma. An Elder who was used on those ships for decades was crying at the end of our conversation. She said, “It was hell. Pure hell.”

Those who never came back from the ships must be honored as well. Sharing historical research is one way I try to do that. I decided to research the larger history of trafficking in Minnesota and Thunder Bay, in order to provide historical context for women’s lives.

Using sources generated by the dominant culture — newspapers, police ledgers, and secondary research — is one way to expose the historical roots of the sex trafficking industry without further endangering those harmed by it. The investigative work of today is not just for those who are being hurt now — it is for ancestors and to prevent harm to those who are on their way. The same institutions and groups are involved in trafficking of Indigenous women and youth now as in the past. In terms of the sex trafficking of Indigenous people, history does not repeat, it has never stopped.

Tool of Colonization

The roots of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) injustice began in 1492, when Columbus landed on the shores of the Taíno people in the Caribbean. Sanctioned by the Doctrine of Discovery — an international law that approved the conquest of non-Christian peoples and their territories — Columbus and his team raped, murdered, enslaved, and trafficked Indigenous people. He shipped 2,200 Taíno people to be auctioned in the Mediterranean slave market.

On his third voyage, Columbus wrote, “A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand.”

The slave trade of Indigenous people was widespread, spanning from Panama to the Great Lakes to Europe. Lasting into the 19th century, between 2.5 and 5 million Indigenous people were enslaved.

In some areas of the Indigenous slave trade, women were “more valued than men due to sexual exploitation and reproductive capabilities,” wrote Andrés Reséndez in the book “The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America.”

This trafficking pattern repeated throughout U.S. history. In 1779, George Washington ordered the destruction of a Haudenosaunee settlement, keeping alive a few young women who were “carried away for the use of the soldiers” and then “put to death in a more shameful manner.”

In 1864, at Sand Creek in Colorado, the U.S. military murdered over 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people despite a truce. They cut out the women’s genitals and wore them on their hats and saddle horns.

For nearly 200 years, the U.S. government engaged in a variety of behaviors harming Indigenous communities, including starvation, despite treaty agreements that the U.S. would provide food and money in exchange for land. Sometimes Indigenous women were sexually exploited in order to obtain the food the government agreed to provide through treaties.

In U.S. boarding schools, Indigenous children were often sexually and physically abused. In Canada, some government officials, church officials, and businessmen trafficked Indigenous children in boarding schools. Unlike Canada, the U.S. government has not had a national inquiry into trafficking in boarding schools, although the systems were nearly identical.

North Shore Trafficking

As tribes were moved onto reservations in Minnesota, and settlers imported European institutions, brothels were established. At the turn of the 20th century, near the Red Lake Reservation, a white Bemidji man owned a “squaw house-of- ill-fame.” Duluth police ledgers from 1897 to 1902 printed the names of women arrested, identified their race as “Indian,” and listed “whore” as their occupations.

Police ledgers were a reflection of U.S. culture’s view of Indigenous women as the devil, sexually wild, available for sexual use, and expendable.

The historical and contemporary sex trafficking of Indigenous women in Minnesota is intertwined with the mining, lumber, grain, and shipping industries in Northern Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin. Indigenous women, and other women, were sold into these primarily white male industries.

Former Superior police officer Alex O’Kash, who wrote about Northern Minnesota communities from the 1920s to the 1960s, described sailors, miners from the Range, and lumberjacks buying women in brothels. He described numerous interconnections among politicians, brothels, pimps, and police in his book “Stop in the Name of the Law.”

Canal Park in Duluth was a red-light district until the 1930s. Although the brothels became less conspicuous, trafficking on the ships and in the Duluth area continued. In 2012, Anishinaabe journalist Annette Pember wrote, “We all knew about women who disappeared to ‘work the boats.’ … 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.”

During my interviews with Indigenous women trafficked on the ships, I heard accounts of sailors threatening to throw women overboard if they refused to do what they were told. Many women did not return from these ships.

Sex trafficking of Indigenous women and youth is rooted in the exploitation on the ships and in the extractive industries. It continues to be a major component of MMIR injustice in Minnesota.

From Columbus to the Duluth port, the prosperity and expansion of the U.S. includes the collusion of governments, law enforcement, and corporations in committing, allowing, and being indifferent to widespread and organized sexual violence against Indigenous people.

The more I learn, the more I heal my own childhood of family-based trafficking, domestic violence, and incest. The first question I asked myself at 21, when I escaped the rapists, was: “How did this happen to me?” This research is partly a continuation of that question, but now my question is: “How did this happen to us?”

One of the most harmful and long-lasting lies that abusers, and society in general, tell victims is that it is our fault. That we made a bad “choice.” It is most certainly not our fault. This culture of exploitation and dehumanization was imported to this country and institutionalized.

The hatred and degradation of Indigenous people has deep roots. In order to heal and change the culture, we have to first know about it.


Chris Stark is a Native lesbian writer, trainer, organizer, and researcher. Her first novel, “Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation,” was a Lambda Literary Finalist. Her second novel,“Carnival Lights,”about MMIR will be published in May.


Further Reading

Short film, “Native American Trafficking,” produced by g3nerations