The wild west

Taylor Broome, career education worker, left, and Patina Park, executive director, of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. Photograph by Sarah Whiting.
North Dakota landscape photo courtesy of

The fortunate among us have a kinship with a place of origin – a sense of place that is safe and secure, where we feel loved. For others, that origin space is far from secure. Many Native American girls, in particular, have been taken advantage of sexually and emotionally at a young age. Some end up in abusive relationships, exposed early to drug and alcohol dependency, disconnected from support as they shuffle at a high rate through the foster-care system.

“Sex traffickers know how to find and prey on these most vulnerable girls,” says Taylor Broome, a career education worker at Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center (MIWRC) who herself experienced the foster-care system. “You can’t help but grow up feeling rejected. These guys come in and say the right thing. They make you feel special, in a way you had never felt before,” Broome says.

Even when these girls are sold for sex by manipulative and controlling “boyfriends,” it is hard for them to self-identify as a victim, Broome says. They have grown emotionally dependent on someone who convinces them they should do anything for him.

Many of these girls also grow up learning from other women in their family that selling sex is a way to make money. They’ve been desensitized about selling sex, says Patina Park, executive director of MIWRC in Minneapolis. “It’s not hidden.”

A high proportion of sex trafficking victims are homeless or runaways who are using sex to try to meet basic needs, says Park. “These women and girls are on the streets and vulnerable,” she says. “They would do anything for their family and kids.”

“Shattered Heart,” MIWRC’s groundbreaking 2009 report on the sexual exploitation of Native American women and girls in Minnesota, focused on Minneapolis and Duluth, where the busy port has drawn prostitution for generations.

The North Dakota oil boom

Enter the “man camps” of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, which have become magnets for sex and drug trafficking. Although oil drilling is down from its peak, over the last several years the fracking industry has permanently changed the landscape, not only assaulting the land to extract oil from deep underground, but turning the western part of the state into an increasingly violent place.

“It’s the Wild West with Wi-Fi,” Park says. “Smartphones give easy access to sex and drugs. They’ve added so many flights to Bismarck.” In April, when she was in Las Vegas for an event, there were news reports about a 16-year-old girl who disappeared. She and a 14-year-old were found in North Dakota during a human trafficking sting. They had been taken.

The Polaris Project, a national anti-trafficking organization, does the math as reported in the Billings (Mont.) Gazette: “A trafficker who has a ‘stable’ of three women with a quota of $500 a night each, seven days a week, could ‘earn’ more than $500,000 tax-free in a year. The same staggering numbers also quantify the ‘trauma experience’ suffered by a woman under an ambitious pimp’s control. A quota of five customers a night means 1,825 forced sexual encounters a year.”

Law enforcement has scrambled to keep up. In June 2015, authorities announced the formation of the Bakken Organized Crime Strike Force, a regional effort which counts human trafficking among its priorities.

Statistics on sex trafficking are hard to come by, partly because the girls and women involved may not see themselves as victims. But people of color represent a disproportionate amount of sex trafficking victims, the Forum News Service reported in January. On the White Earth reservation in western Minnesota, the same article reported an anti-violence program identified 17 adult victims of sex trafficking last year.

Park is from North Dakota, where she says many people do not feel safe. “The hospitals and jails are full. It’s destroying the infrastructure – the extraction, transportation, spilling. It is rape of the earth, taking out the water and oil, polluting the air. Everything we need to live and survive.”

Some communities in North Dakota have been promised 20 years of work from oil drilling, Broome says, “but in some places, they are done in less than two years, leaving land that has been ravaged. It’s a huge mess for others to clean up.”

“This is not a new ‘man camp’ issue,” Park says, referring to the drilling and pipeline building that goes back for generations. “It’s just that it’s not normally in our field of vision. We fill our car with gas and don’t think where that is coming from. There is no safe way to do what we’re doing. Exploitation is connected with every step.”

Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center

2300 15th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55404

Breaking Free
P.O. Box 4366, St. Paul, MN 55104

4her North Dakota
P.O. Box 3522, Minot, ND 58702

National Human Trafficking Resource Center
Hotline: 1-888-373-7888“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be?”
– Flannery O’Connor, “Wise Blood”