This is the sixth in a multi-part series that will chronicle my journey into the world of sex-trafficking and murder in Indian Country and beyond. The first can be read here, the second, third, fourth and fifth. If you’ve already read those, scroll down until the font change.
Headlines, hashtags, and public service announcements don’t provide a way to explore the nuances, relationships and historical responsibilities involved in the discussion and eradication of the trafficking of vulnerable Native American children and women for sexual exploitation. I hope this series does that and more.
I became consciously involved with the subject in September 2017 when I was called by Ancestors to find a young Navajo woman who had been disappeared from the reservation and was believed by a Navajo cop to be in the Phoenix Metro area. I didn’t know it at the time but finding a body dump on the same reservation in 2014 and my presence at Standing Rock in 2016 laid the groundwork for me to walk into a multinational sex-trafficking operation with connections that span 45 countries. Telling how this story unfolds requires discussion of history and the repercussion arisen out of it, trauma experienced and held by peoples and the natural world, realities of misogyny, sexuality, institutionalized racism, the reemergence of what I call ‘the medicine way’ and where all those things converge in our current era. There will be no naming and shaming here but there will be solutions offered as the series progresses.
Recent headlines about sex trafficking operations being interrupted in Florida during a sting in which Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, was arrested for soliciting prostitution and the prosecution’s protection of Jeffery Epstein also in Florida have momentarily brought sex trafficking into the national consciousness.
Like the #metoo movement, the celebrity names attached to these arrests and outcry inspire brief discussion but there appears to be as little interest in publishing information describing the how the trafficking operation came to be and why it persists, as there is to prosecute the right people. The language remains ‘celebrity busted’ and whatever salacious details that will sell advertising. We, the readers, want the comfortable short-read and then to move on. “Seventeen Slaves Freed” isn’t the headline that will engage us. It’s so far removed from our collective consciousness that to bring it under the microscope even in a sanitized ‘newsworthy’ manner is more cringe-worthy than sellable. It evokes collective memories and histories of, at least here in the US, the African slave trade that have yet to be healed.
On February 26, the 1A.org shared as the lead-in to their discussion about the Kraft-sting, from the New York Times,
that law enforcement “estimated the trafficking ring to be a $20 million international operation” in which “men paid between $100 and $200 for sex.”
We don’t know how many ‘massage parlors’ or other brothels were involved in this sting but according to the NYT article mentioned above, the investigation spanned four counties in Florida and included connections to New York along with the mention that the women involved were from China. However, I’m going to use the two states and $20 million figure to paint a picture.
Here, I’m also trying to keep in mind the psychologies of ‘too much’–too much information, too many victims, too much distance and too far removed to care–and psychic numbing. Psychic numbing is the phenomenon defined by Paul Slovic where, “as the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases. This happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two….It means that there is no constant value for a human life, that the value of a single life diminishes against the backdrop of a larger tragedy.”
In this case, though, the painted picture is a large tapestry and cannot be contained in a single, small frame. So where I’ll start with my own experience of psychic numbing, $20 million dollars and two states in the US to create a comparison and attempt to work from there.
In September 2017, I went from Montana to Phoenix, Arizona thinking I was going to find and perhaps rescue one missing Navajo woman. Within a week, that number increased to at least six people–four young adults and two children–and by the end of the fourth month, that single digit had increased into the four digits. What I’d been brought into wasn’t just a case of one missing woman but multiple hundreds held in captivity to be sold for sex.
Within days of arriving in Phoenix, using what information there was available to me (and to law enforcement, by the way), I found a pattern in reported missing persons cases from Arizona and New Mexico. I was certain at least four of the young women who’d been recently disappeared were being held together and, though taken at different times, were set up by the same people. It made no sense to me why law enforcement would ignore my attempts at information sharing and wouldn’t engage with me. At the time, the only reasonable explanation was that of institutionalized racism. I told myself more than once, “They just don’t give too fucks about brown skinned kids.”
That changed the moment I was led to the Talking Stick Resort where I stayed for days, watching. Watching tribal police have congenial conversations with pimps, watching security facilitate sexual rendezvous between prostitutes and buyers, and watching those I’d identified as federal agents watch all of this. I was certain I’d find Ariel there and created a rescue plan that I was ready to put into motion the moment she agreed to leave with me. I practiced, I drilled, I rehearsed, I parked my car strategically, I was ready.
What I wasn’t ready for was the understanding that what I was witnessing was not isolated, but systemic. When I was first interviewed by the FBI weeks prior to the Talking Stick experience, I was clear in my understanding that this network had been in operation for decades, was run by men and women, centered in the Phoenix area, and involved agreements formalized at Standing Rock that expanded it’s previous reach. What I subsequently learned, in part through the Talking Stick experience, was that my understanding was only the tip of the iceberg and that my involvement began long, long before September 6, 2017.
This network has indeed been around for decades. When and where it began exactly I can’t say. However, it’s current iteration is a formal partnership between what appears to be the Sinaloa cartel and the National Indian Gaming Association In the United States alone there are 136 class III casinos that are directly involved or indirectly complicit in the prostituting of Indigenous and other women who have been disappeared elsewhere for that specific purpose. In Canada, First Nations-associated casinos in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario have also been identified. Other non-native casinos in both countries, managed by a few specific companies, are also participants.
Let’s come back to the idea of a $20 million sex trafficking operating in two states out of small massage parlors. We’re going to do some quick extrapolating here with the understanding that math was never my strong suit and we don’t know all the facts. These 136 casinos are sprinkled across the country so I’ll pick one state, Washington, to work with here. For shits and grins, let’s cut the $20 million in half to $10 because I’m only using one state as an example, not two. There are about thirty Indian casinos in Washington State that have been identified as having direct ties to sexual slavery. Thirty casinos x $10 million. With me so far? There are other possible factors to consider like the size of 30 casinos, potential number of johns, and their number of bedrooms and ‘client’ turnover compared to the space of a massage parlor but I’m not considering those at this point. Thirty casinos times $10 million dollars = $300,000,000. Now, this is just supposition based on an idea grounded in little facts. We have no way of knowing how much money is generated through the prostitution of slaves in any one casino or those spanning a state, never mind those spanning over 25 states. The point here is that there is big money, massive amounts of money wrapped up in the infrastructure of organized crime, and entirely legal gambling.
The larger point is this: First Nations and Native American women have been intentionally disappeared for decades from across the continent. Some of their stories are slowly being told and heard. However, those consigned to sexual slavery have largely been missed and the current cries for ‘more awareness’ ignore the open secret in Native communities and the ‘in sight but out of mind’ slavery of indigenous women in indigenous-based gambling establishments.
This past summer I had a conversation with the CEO of a management company. His company is based in the US but manages a First Nation’s casino in Manitoba. When I told him this particular casino had been identified as participating in the sexual trafficking of Indigenous women, his immediate response was, “That’s not our ethos. If you have proof, then….”
No one is going to put in their mission or vision statement or description of entertainment options a reference to the collusion with organized crime or participation in the sexual slavery of kidnapped or trapped women.
However, the proof is on every security camera in each of these casinos. It’s in the stories and institutional knowledge of maintenance, security, and housekeeping and wait staff, croupiers, bartenders, customers and, in the US, federal law enforcement. So why has it not been addressed? Why hasn’t there been an intervention? Is it because ‘there’s no constant value to human life’? Is it because the problem is too expansive for siloed, compartmentalized law enforcement organizations to competently or efficiently intercede? Is it because it’s ‘just prostitution‘ or ‘they’re just whores‘, ”they’re just Indians’ or ‘they aren’t terrorists‘ or because they have brown skin? Is it because those in the larger non-Native community don’t have enough awareness? If they did, would they become allies? Is it because the reckoning that comes with the acknowledgment of the whole truth is more than most can bear?
I believe that it is a combination of all of those things and with that understanding a new conversation can emerge.