12 March 2016


By Dubian Ade

Misty Upham, Native Actress (Illustration by Vin Ganapathy for The Guardian)

Native women are in danger. Around the country, Native woman are disappearing from their communities at an alarming rate. Three Indigenous women have been found dead in northern Minnesota since May of 2015. 52 year-old Lisa Isham, 31 year-old Rose Downwind, and 44 year-old Dawn Reynolds were all killed in between the months of May and December. Two more have disappeared. In Canada. Tina Fontaine was found dead in the Red River August of 2014. Her death sparked a national inquiry.

Media coverage of these deaths and disappearances have been sparse and inadequate. Police and local authorities have shown no interest in investigating. Low-income Native women and two-spirit people live in a constant state of fear.

Five hours from Minnesota in the oil-rich fields of North Dakota, scores of men toil working the oil boom that recently swept the area of the Bakken. The discovery of the Parshall Oil Field in 2006 prompted the creation of thousands of jobs and nearly doubled the population from 20,000 to 40,000 people. It also prompted the emergence of sex-trafficking rings, which formed around the worker markets. Servicing the violent sexual appetites of oil workers, low-income Native women are often abducted from surrounding reservations.

Oil companies are absolutely complicit in the sexual violence and commercial human trafficking occurring in the Bakken. Some of those companies include Exxon Mobil, Hess, US Energy, Marathon Oil, and Conoco Phillips.

The abduction and sex-trafficking of Indigenous women is not limited to Bakken. In Montana, the trafficking of Native women has increased 15% within the last year according to the Montana Native Women's Coalition. Although trafficking statistics of Native women remain scarce, according to Indian Country Today journalist Victoria Sweet research from related studies suggest that Native women and girls are disproportionately affected by the human trafficking industry.

According to the Justice Department at least 61% of Native woman have been assaulted in their lifetimes. Native women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted then women from other ethnic groups. 1 in 3 Native women are likely to be raped in their lifetime. In Minnesota 25% of women arrested for sex-work identified as Native American but Natives represent only 2.2% of the total population. In Anchorage, Alaska 33% of women arrested for sex-work identified as Alaskan Native but Natives represent only 7.9% of the total population. In Vancouver, Canada, 52% of sex-workers identified as Native when only 7% of the total population is Indigenous.

The Save Wiyabi Project, an advocacy group dedicated to addressing violence against Native women, has tracked more than 1000 death and disappearance cases of Indigenous women in the United States. In Canada, more than 1200 unsolved murder and missing cases of Indigenous women have been reported.

Many more go unreported.

Oil fields, forestry projects, fracking operations, trucking and shipping routes, lumber yards, shipping ports, construction sites, are all hotbeds for sex trafficking.Traffickers will target young low-income Native women, many of whom are abducted, abandoned, or are runways between the ages of 15 and 20. Often times traffickers will befriend these women, give them nice things, and get them use to a life on the run. Then they will "groom" them for the markets in the cities or in places like the Bakken.

32.4% of Native children live in poverty. 50 to 80 percent of trafficking victims have been involved in the foster care system at some point in their lives. From the 1940s to the 1960s at least one third of Native children were placed in the foster care system. In foster care, Native girls in particular are vulnerable to sex-traffickers who will often use drugs and other means to indoctrinate commercial sex-workers. Many young girls involved in the sex trade were either abandoned or choose to run away from the conditions on the reservation. Many suffer from inter-generational trauma.

Sexual violence against Indigenous women in this country dates all the way back to Columbus. Native women were sold as slaves to European colonizers. Columbus himself condoned the gang rape of Indigenous women. The state sponsored forced relocations of Native tribes destroyed Indigenous families. Native children were forced to go to the Christian boarding schools where they were sexually abused and beaten.

The exotized and eroticized images of Native women make them even more desirable for trafficking markets. The hyper sexual images of the "Pocahontas" pervade mainstream media and pop-culture. White women want to wear headdresses with dream-catcher earrings and be sexy native princesses for Halloween. Everywhere the Native woman's body is rendered disposable, objectified and dehumanized.

Native actress Misty Upham went missing on October 5, 2014 in Auburn, Washington. She was best known for her role in the award-winning 2008 film Frozen River, in which she was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female.

Upham was last seen leaving her family's home on the Muckleshoot Reservation after going through emotional distress. Misty Upham body was found a week later at the bottom of a ravine. According to the medical examiner, Upham died of blunt-force injuries. Police refused to help with the investigation. They did not send a search party when Upham went missing. Local authorities claimed that her disappearance did not fit the criteria for a full-fledged investigation. Volunteers made up of family and fiends had to find Misty's body on their own.

Charles Upham, Misty's father, was told that a witness saw two men beat his daughter and throw her down the ravine. No arrests have been made.

Native women are in danger.

Dubian Ade

February 2016

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