The origins of human trafficking

Courtesy StrongHearts

If not for the journals of America’s first explorers, Indigenous people might not have an understanding of the overwhelming feeling of discomfort when in the presence of some non-Native people. As though, we do not matter, as though we are less than they, that they could do to us what they wanted as a person, a family, as a nation of people. 

But we do have those journals to reflect on as evidence of the day when Indigenous people became a commodity to be trafficked and enslaved for the purpose of sex and labor in both America and Europe. 

October 11, 1492, “They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians.” October 14, 1492, “These people are very simple [in] the use of arms …with fifty men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.” 

 American History vs Native History 

More than five centuries later, school children learn about “Thanksgiving” and how Native and non-Natives feasted and thrived in friendship when nothing could be farther from the truth. Across the nation, elected state leaders are banning teaching the truth about our history, calling it “critical race theory.”   

“Our nation was built upon the graves of Indigenous people and upon the backs of minorities,” said CEO Lori Jump, StrongHearts Native Helpline. “When state legislatures are denying and suppressing the truth about our history, we can not sufficiently address nor prevent human trafficking. In order to heal from the tragedies of our past, in order to understand the dynamics of domestic and sexual violence – we must face the truth about our nation’s history.” 

Human trafficking worldwide  

Human traffickers profit at the expense of their victims by forcing them to perform labor or to engage in commercial sex in every region of the United States and around the world. With an estimated 27.6 million victims worldwide at any given time, human traffickers prey on people of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities, exploiting them for their own profit. 

Studies on human trafficking are few and far between, especially those related to Native people. In a Minnesota based study on sex trafficking,“Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota,” 105 Native women who were trafficked participated in a survey about the tragedy of their own experiences. Native women, children and Two-spirit people were found to be victimized with more frequency – noting that most traffickers were non-Native who targeted those most vulnerable to being poverty stricken and homeless.   

Normalization of selling sex 

Jessica Smith, a victim-survivor turned advocate, knows what it means to be trafficked both as a child and as an adult. And, she knows that the only way to help these victims is to get them off the streets and into stable housing.  

“As children, we see our Mothers being trafficked and we look up to them [as role models],” Smith said and explained that there is a connection between intergenerational trauma and human trafficking. “I saw generations of it and thought it was normal.” 

Smith added, “It’s important for people to understand that sex trafficking is perpetrated by people outside of our [Native] communities. Whether it’s domestic violence, rape, murder, prostitution or sex trafficking, the vast majority of perpetrators against Native women and children are not Native men,” said Smith. “We found that to be true in the Garden of Truth.”  

Perpetrators and their victims  

Native victim survivors readily identified perpetrators as primarily white men followed by African American men and to a much lesser degree by Native men. Sex traffickers use common tactics that include: trickery and coercion as well as emotional, physical and sexual abuse. 

Vulnerabilities to human trafficking include: 

  • An unstable living situation 
  • Previous experience with other forms of violence (sexual/domestic) 
  • Identified as a runaway and/or involved in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems 
  • Poverty and/or economic need 
  • Addiction to drugs and/or alcohol (often introduced by traffickers) 
  • Substance abuse by a caregiver or family member

Vulnerability among Native women surveyed: 

  • 99 percent were currently or previously homeless. 
  • 92 percent had been raped and wanted to escape prostitution 
  • 84 percent had been physically assaulted in prostitution. 
  • 79 percent had been sexually abused as children by an average of 4 perpetrators. 
  • 72 percent suffered traumatic brain injuries in prostitution. 
  • 71 percent had symptoms of dissociation. 
  • 52 percent had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a rate equal to combat veterans. 

“As a survivor and advocate,” Smith concluded that survivor led advocacy is key to prevention. “We need [advocates] to understand that we were raped, beaten, and made to sell our bodies. [That] we did not choose this life. It was chosen for us.”   

July 30 observes World Day Against Trafficking in Persons 

The World Day Against Trafficking in Persons is observed annually on July 30 to raise awareness about human trafficking and to promote and protect the rights of trafficking victims. 

StrongHearts understands  

At StrongHearts Native Helpline, we understand.  We recognize the importance of education, and we strive to identify and expose the roots of human trafficking. We acknowledge that it began with colonization and continues primarily at the hands of non-Natives. Ours is the story of all Indigenous peoples – a story about survival and resilience and a story that must conclude with truth, reparation and reconciliation.  

StrongHearts advocates are available 24/7 and offer: 

  • Information and education about domestic violence and sexual violence. 
  • Personalized safety planning. 
  • Crisis intervention. 
  • Referrals to Native-centered domestic violence and sexual violence service providers. 
  • Basic information about health options. 
  • Support locating health facilities or crisis centers trained in the care of sexual assault and forensic exams. 
  • General information about jurisdiction and legal advocacy referrals. 

Call or text 1-844-762-8483 or chat online at  

Human Trafficking Hotline 

Serving all individuals who reach out for their services regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, age, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or any other factor protected by local, state, or federal law, The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 1-888-373-7888, hearing impaired dial 711, text 233733 SMS text lines and live online chat available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. 

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