Suzanne Koepplinger. Photo by Emma Freeman.
Looking at the petite dynamo with the no-nonsense manner, it’s hard to imagine Suzanne Koepplinger as a battered wife. But she was. And today as executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center she works tirelessly to help Native American women and girls who are forced into prostitution. “I understand what it’s like to be victimized,” Koepplinger said simply.
She doesn’t just understand-she’s doing something about it. With the support of State Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, Koepplinger got legislation to conduct a culturally based study on the scope of sex trafficking of American Indian women in Minnesota introduced in the Legislature’s 2008 session.
While the bill, asking for $175,000 to study the issue, didn’t make it out of committee, “it got a lot of attention, raised a lot of eyebrows and interest,” said Koepplinger, 53, who’s of Mohawk ancestry. Getting as far as she did is in itself newsworthy; this is the first time this sort of bill has even been heard at the Legislature. The bill stated, in part: “The commissioner [of public safety] shall gather, compile, and publish annually statistical data on the extent and nature of trafficking in Minnesota. This annual publication shall be available to the public. … In addition, the report must include research and data specific to the domestic trafficking of American Indian women and girls in Minnesota.”
The issue was heard before the Minnesota House’s Public Safety/Finance Committee. “I was very heartened by the strong bipartisan support,” Koepplinger said. After the hearing, the issue “got the ear” of decision-makers at the Kellogg Foundation, resulting in a $50,000 grant to put together a study. “We can’t move forward until we have more than anecdotal information. We’ve got to have the data,” Koepplinger said.
The study got under way in November, headed by Alexandra Pierce of the Seneca tribe. She expects to complete the study by the end of July 2009.
There’s no doubt that the young women being trafficked are victims, Koepplinger said. “These are kids. These are babies,” Koepplinger said. “The message is: These are disposable young women, that [prostitution] is their choice.” Native girls and women are disproportionately targeted because of situations that make them vulnerable-poverty, lack of opportunity, broken social structure and a high percentage of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Sure, the facts and figures are needed to make a case for more attention to the virtual enslavement of Native women, but it’s the stories, the peek into the horror of their existence that makes one sit up and take notice.
• In 2007, Duluth police boarded a ship and found two 15-year-old Native girls who had been beaten, raped numerous times and stuffed into cubbyholes.
• In October 2008, 13 women in the workhouse on prostitution charges were set to be released and the resource center’s sexual assault advocate worked with them on an exit plan. Eleven needed housing but it was not available. Ten of them went back to their pimps. “They had nowhere else to go,” Koepplinger said. One of the women is now dead.
• Koepplinger remembers the “rough” 28-year-old who was 12 when her mother made her a prostitute to support her crack habit. By 14, the girl was prostituting other girls to support her own crack addiction.
Ninety percent of prostituted women want to leave the life, but there must be social services to assist and support them-housing, job training, medical care, help with chemical dependency, Koepplinger said, as well as funding for police to conduct more john stings. “I can make a lot of noise about how no one cares about these women. Once people know, they’ll care and want to do something, ” Koepplinger said.
Want to support Suzanne Koepplinger’s work? Go to www.miwrc.org for more info.