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Native Americans Are Some Of The Most Vulnerable To Sex Trafficking

Courtesy of Lynnette Greybull
Lynnette Greybull founded Not Our Native Daughters, an initiative against sex trafficking.

When Lynette Greybull was 17, she lived on the streets. She said she was lucky friends took her in and kept her from falling into a life of sex trafficking.

“I became really close friends with young women that were trafficked,” Greybull said. “They weren’t human trafficking victims to me. These were friends. And some are not here today.”

Greybull became an advocate for young women like them and started Not Our Native Daughters, an initiative against sex trafficking. Greybull said since there are few opportunities on the reservation, young girls are lured into trafficking, often through social media.

“The devil never comes dressed as a devil,” Greybull said. “They come in their trickery, in their craftiness, in their charisma, their promises.”

Greybull said traffickers prey on girls, mostly, many of whom already have been sexually abused, don’t have decent family support or are in the foster care system. Native American children enter foster care at twice the rate of all children in the U.S., according to a Government Accountability Office study. Greybull said many of these young people have to fight for shelter, food and protection.

“And you have someone come along that takes you out to eat, that gets your hair and nails done, gives you a phone, gives you shoes, clothes you well, treats you well, gives you affirmation. It’s almost like a hero has been sent to you,” Greybull said.

This year Navajo leaders discovered several cases of sex trafficking on the reservation, but they had no way to fight it. So the tribe passed a law to make human trafficking a crime. Many other tribes are doing the same. Congress also plans to consider legislation that would give states the authority to prosecute traffickers.

Sex trafficking is not new to Native Americans. When Europeans began to colonize in the late 1800s, many Native women and girls became a commodity. Lisa Heth runs the Pathfinder Center, a refuge for human trafficking victims in South Dakota.

“They couldn’t feed their families,” Heth said. “And so then some of the mothers were starting to sell their daughters to some of the soldiers.”

Today, history is repeating itself.

“Families will sell their young daughters for alcohol or drugs,” Heth said. “We’re seeing that more and more on our reservations.”

Many Cases Unreported

A recent Government Accountability Office study found only 14 federal human trafficking investigations in Indian Country between 2013 and 2016. During that same period the FBI investigated 6,100 elsewhere.

But the watchdog group found many cases likely have gone unreported on reservations, like the Navajo Nation that only recently made it a crime. And Heth said many girls are reluctant to come forward.

“They’re fearful of reporting it because of retaliation or that they’re going be blamed. In the past we know that women have come forward and they’ve even been blamed by their own family members,” Heth said. “‘You shouldn’t have been drinking. You shouldn’t have been doing this and that.’”

The National Congress of American Indians said Native Americans are one of the most vulnerable populations to sex trafficking because of the significant poverty rates, high numbers of runaway youth and low levels of law enforcement.

In Arizona, Cindy McCain has taken up the cause. McCain spoke to a recent U.S. Senate Committee, which included her husband Sen. John McCain.

“I witnessed with my own eyes six little girls lined up against a wall inside a casino just outside of Phoenix on display for customers,” Cindy McCain said. “These children were silent and visibly scared.”

The McCain Institute has partnered with other groups to develop an algorithm to help police identify minors who may be trapped in a sex trafficking situation. McCain also spoke out against websites like Backpage.com, that make sex trafficking easy.

“Over 75 percent of trafficking victims tell us they were sold online,” Cindy McCain said. “We have found it easier to sell a child online for sex than it is to buy a bicycle or a sofa.”

The legislation Congress is considering — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act — would allow states to crack down on these websites, or anyone who facilitates sex trafficking.

Lynnette Greybull said she’s worked with sex trafficking survivors from many tribes.

“The common thread there is that ‘nobody cares,’” Greybull said. “Being a homeless youth myself, I know what that feels like. You think that if something happens to you, nobody would even shed a tear for your life.”

Greybull tries to convince them that’s not true and to help them find their purpose.

Document: U.S. Government Accountability Office Study

Laurel Morales was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2011 to 2020.