Shedding light on a dark subject: sex trafficking

By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News 

Human trafficking ranks as the second largest criminal industry in the world today. It has become an ever increasing global problem and only continues to worsen. The International Labor Organization 2012 report estimates there are 21 million victims of human trafficking. Of that number, 4.5 million are children and women exploited by the global commercial sex trade. Most Americans view the sex trade as more of an international issue and aren’t aware of its prevalence within U.S. borders. In fact, thousands of American women and children are trafficked in the U.S. commercial sex industry.

Washington’s international border with Canada, its many ports, rural areas and agricultural make the state prone to human trafficking. In 2003, Washington became the first state in the nation to enact legislation making human trafficking a crime. Seattle police and the U.S. Department of Justice see a trend of victims and pimps being sourced out of the state along the west coast track from Vancouver, B.C. to Seattle to Los Angeles. The Seattle area including Snohomish County has seen an increase in illegal internet activity (e.g. prostitution) as a result of human trafficking along the I-5 corridor.

Snohomish County has been a major part of several sex trafficking stings led by law enforcement agencies over recent months. Most recently, in September 2016, ten men were arrested in Operation Anvil and charged in Snohomish County for crimes including commercial sexual abuse of a minor, rape of a child, and attempted rape of a child. Operation Anvil garnered national media attention and was an eye-opening moment for viewers of any local news shows. There was a similar sting operation in February 2016 where six men were arrested and charged for similar crimes.


The award-winning documentary, ‘The Long Night’ is raising sex trafficking awareness in the northwest. Tulalip Girls’ Group coordinator Sasha Smith, Chairman Mel Sheldon, and Tulalip News staff were among those invited to a special screening.


Further emphasis on the need for sex trafficking awareness in Snohomish County has rose from special screenings of the award-winning documentary, The Long Night, within the past month. Set in Seattle, The Long Night explores the crisis of minors who are coerced into the American sex trade. The film, by Tim Matsui, weaves the stories of seven individuals whose lives have been affected.

On Thursday, November 17, the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County arranged a screening of The Long Night at an Edmonds church. Tulalip Girls’ Group coordinator Sasha Smith, Chairman Mel Sheldon, and Tulalip News staff were among those invited.

Following the screening, Sheriff’s Department detective Joan Gwordske reviewed sex trafficking problems in Snohomish County and urged all community members to help raise awareness on sex trafficking in order to help prevent future incidents.

“Anybody in here have teenage daughters or granddaughters that go to high school in this area? What school?” Detective Gwordske posed this question to the audience. Hands went up and crowd members responded with several local high schools. “I have [sex trafficking] cases with girls in every single one of those schools and probably every other one that you can think of in Snohomish County,” she said.

Long-time community member and former Northwest Indian College (NWIC) professor, Karen Shoaf-Mitchell has made it a personal mission of hers to help raise awareness on sex trafficking.

“As former public school teacher of forty years, I realize how vulnerable teens can be. In June of 2014, the Washington State legislature mandated that all school districts have information about this crime on hand for its counselors, school nurses, health classes, PTAs, etc. Yet, it was an unfunded mandate, so I decided that I should do something,” explains Karen. “Therefore, I’ve given an informative presentation on sex trafficking to the Everett Public Library, to a World Problems class at Cascade High School in Everett, several times to the sovereignty class located at NWIC Tulalip, and now to the Tulalip Girls’ Group.”

Karen credits Tulalip for openly discussing subjects like abuse and exploitation in the tribal newspaper. She also points to former Board of Director Deborah Parker, who has spoken publicly about how she was taken advantage of, as another example of the Tulalip Tribes motivation to protect the most vulnerable, our children.

“[Sex trafficking] is a crime that is perpetrated upon the vulnerable and that outrages me,” continues Karen. “I presented to the Tulalip Girls’ Group a documentary about sex trafficking that shares stories from trafficking victims. Upon viewing the film, the girls had shocked and worried expressions on their faces. I shared that they could be vulnerable or their friends could be vulnerable to this manipulation by others. I also gave the girls cards from Dawson Place in Everett to put in their wallets with a phone number on it from D.P. to call if they ever needed help.”

“The girls and I were surprised that it is happening in our backyard,” says Girls’ Group coordinator Sasha Smith of their reaction to the sex trafficking presentation. “I had no idea that it was happening so close to home, thought it was something you only see in the movies. It was a good wake up call for myself and the members of Tulalip Girls’ Group.”

Sex trafficking is a very real problem in Snohomish County and our local communities. For better awareness and understanding of the issue please visit for more information.


Contact Micheal Rio,

For Native Women, High Price of Rape Goes Untold

The Cherokee Nation has begun an advertising campaign to encourage native women to seek help.Credit: Photo by Suzette Brewer
The Cherokee Nation has begun an advertising campaign to encourage native women to seek help.
Credit: Photo by Suzette Brewer

There’s no way to quantify the damage, but tribal leaders estimate it’s in the billions. “It happens every day in every native community; it’s that common,” says Jodi Gillette, former special assistant on Native American Affairs to the White House.

By Suzette Brewer, WeNews Correspondent

STILWELL, Okla. (WOMENSENEWS)– For six years Brendan Johnson served as U.S. attorney for the State of South Dakota.

During his time as federal prosecutor, Johnson says fully 100 percent of the women and girls engaged in the sex trafficking industry were victims of rape and-or sexual abuse earlier in their lives.

“We had an underage girl from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota who was picked up in Sioux Falls and wound up in a sex ring,” said Johnson, who is now in private practice, in a phone interview from his office in Sioux Falls, S.D. “She was a single mother and had not a penny to her name, which is very common. She didn’t want to rely on government assistance because of the fear that her child would be taken away. She had also been sexually abused prior to this. So the high economic impact of these situations is hard to accurately quantify, because of post-traumatic stress disorder and the related issues for girls who are vulnerable targets for these criminals.”

Tribal women are the most vulnerable group of women when it comes to rape; nearly three times as likely to suffer sexual assault than all other races in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice.

“It happens every day in every native community–it’s that common,” says Jodi Gillette, the former special assistant on Native American Affairs to the White House. “I know literally dozens of women who have told me at one point or another that they were raped or sexually abused, but no one talks about it because of the stigma. So they suffer in silence.”

Gillette, who now serves as a tribal policy advisor for the Sonosky Chambers law firm in Washington, D.C., recently testified at the U.S. Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva that even with recent passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the Violence Against Women Act of 2013, which closed jurisdictional gaps and allowed non-tribal perpetrators to be tried in tribal courts, much work remains to be done.

Basic Services a Struggle

“Many tribes struggle to provide basic victims services, necessary training and staff for courts and adequate mental health care,” said Gillette in a recent phone interview. “To this day, tribes still cannot prosecute non-Indians for child abuse, rape and other serious crimes against women and children and must rely on the federal authorities, who usually only prosecute the worst crimes. This leaves vulnerable many Indigenous women and children unprotected in their own homelands.”

Nearly one-third of tribal women, or approximately 875,000 nationwide, report being raped at some time in their lives. Two-thirds of their perpetrators are non-Indian, who until very recently could not be prosecuted in tribal court and are still unlikely to ever face formal charges for their crimes in state or federal court. This is due, in part, to the fact that–despite the recent expansions of tribal court to prosecute rape–many smaller and-or remote tribes either do not have their own tribal court systems and do not have the resources to establish one.

The scourge of rape in Indian country has impacted every single community among the nation’s 567 federally-recognized tribes, whose total population hovers around 5.2 million.

The costs–both emotional and financial–are staggering for communities already beset by poverty and its attendant social problems in geographically isolated regions.

The American College of Emergency Physicians, based in Irving, Texas, estimates that the tangible costs of rape–for both the victim and the society–are approximately $150,000 per victim. That amount covers a range of categories including expenses for justice and prosecution, physical and mental health issues for the woman and her family, social services including emergency response teams and shelters, loss of education, loss of wages and/or employment.

Emotional costs, including pain and suffering for the victim and her children, possible death of the victim, including suicide and others, are incalculable.

Native American writer Louise Erdrich, in her 2012 book “The Round House,” tells the story of Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe woman who has been raped on Indian land. After her attacker goes free because of jurisdictional issues on Indian reservations, her teenaged son sets out on a quest to seek justice for his mother, who has retreated to her bed, paralyzed by grief and trauma.

Though the story is fictional, Erdrich’s book accurately captures the terrible toll of rape for Native women

Tribal leaders estimate that the final tally is in the billions for native communities already strapped by poverty and lack of opportunity.

Overlapping Issues

The pervasive and pernicious nature of sexual assault and abuse overlaps with a variety of other serious issues within native communities.

“Sexual assault presents some of the greatest challenges in Indian country,” Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said in a recent email interview. “Because of the devastating impact that sexual assault can have on self-worth and self-esteem, we know that it may be a contributing factor to the epidemic of youth suicides. As we try to help tribal communities cope with a suicide crisis, it is imperative that we address each of the risk factors. For that reason, we have been working on better responding to the needs of survivors of sexual assault.”

Across the country, geographic isolation and jurisdictional complexities continue to be the biggest obstacles in both the prosecution and restitution of these crimes, particularly in Alaska, which has 229 tribes and is nearly three times larger than Texas.

The Northern Plains and the tribes of the Southwest are similarly situated, with tribal law enforcement and social service departments already bursting with overflowing caseloads and limited resources to prosecute. But with a growing sense of urgency, many tribes are redirecting as many resources as possible to address what is regarded as a human rights crisis in Indian communities.

The two largest tribes–the Cherokee Nation and Navajo Nation, for example–have dedicated agencies to assist their tribal members who are victims of sexual assault and other violent crimes. In 2013, the Cherokee Nation opened the One Fire Victims Service Office, which provides emergency advocate assistance to law enforcement, transitional housing and even legal assistance for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or dating violence.

Help Navigating the System

The Navajo Nation Victims Assistance Program also works closely with the three states within its boundaries–Arizona, New Mexico and Utah–to assist its tribal members with help in navigating the legal system, as well as completing applications for financial assistance for health-related expenses, costs of funerals, lost wages, eyewear, and Native healing ceremonies and traditional medicine people.

The smaller tribes, many of whom have poor economies and high unemployment, still struggle with the enormous legal, logistic and financial burdens of sexual assault in their communities.

For them, not much has changed over the years, in spite of new legislation and programs to help stem the violence against Native women.

Gillette recalls a high school friend from the 1980s whose case is one of the few that have ever gone to trial. She says her friend, who was from the Northern Plains, was skewered and portrayed as a “whore” on the stand after being gang-raped by a half-dozen white teenagers from a neighboring community, even though she was a virgin at the time of the assault. Nonetheless, her perpetrators went free while her friend felt punished for coming forward.

“They made an example of her,” said Gillette, who remains haunted by her friend’s case. “The message was clear, ‘This is what’s going to happen to you if you tell.’ And she was only 15 years old. In this day and age, you’d think we’re past that–but we’re not.”

As sex trade ramps up in untamed oil patch, Dakotas crack down

Dec. 1, 2013

Written by Dave Kolpack

Associated Press

FARGO — U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp has introduced legislation meant to crack down on sex trafficking, which experts fear is on the rise in her home state of North Dakota because of the large influx of men coming to work in the state’s western oil patch.

Heidi Heitkamp
Heidi Heitkamp

Heitkamp, a Democrat, introduced the bill this week on the same day that federal prosecutors in North Dakota unsealed charges against 11 Dickinson-area men who were arrested in a child prostitution sting. The men thought they were buying sex with teenage girls, prosecutors allege.

“Just looking at the recent arrests would tell you that North Dakota could be ground zero for this type of behavior,” Heitkamp told The Associated Press on Friday.

It’s a trend that has alarmed federal prosecutors in North and South Dakota. A man on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota recently was sentenced to 45 years in prison for coercing women into prostitution in oilfield communities. Two men in South Dakota have received life sentences for human trafficking cases in Sioux Falls.

“With the increase in population, there’s the risk of organized crime,” said Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney from North Dakota. “We’re certainly very aware of the threat potentially posed by human trafficking in the oil patch.”

Heitkamp said the bill, which focuses on all forms of human trafficking, would encourage law enforcement officers and the courts to treat minors who are sold for sex as victims, not as criminals. She said it includes a safe harbor provision to encourage them to come forward.

“These are very difficult issues to expose and research,” Heitkamp said. “It’s very difficult to get the victims to speak. They’ve been conditioned not to speak. They’ve been terrorized.”

Heitkamp said estimates show that more than 100,000 minors in the U.S. are forced into sex trafficking every year. Children are 13 years old, on average, when they are forced to become prostitutes, she said.

Native American girls and women often are targets of human traffickers, Heitkamp and Purdon said.

“You have a vulnerable population in young girls on the reservation,” Purdon said. “My concern is that they could be exploited if organized human trafficking operations gain an inroad here.”

Purdon said the 11 arrests in Dickinson and three arrests in a Williston sting about a month ago “stand for the idea that there is the demand out there as well.” Trying to stop the supply is more difficult, he said.

Going after the johns could help deter other future buyers, Heitkamp said.

“Nobody wants to see their name in the paper relative to sex trafficking,” she said.

Brendan Johnson
Brendan Johnson

Brendan Johnson, the U.S. attorney for South Dakota, recently argued and won a case in front of the 8th U.S. Circuit of Appeals that reinstated convictions against two men who previously were acquitted of commercial sex trafficking. The men had been arrested in a sting operation known as “Operation Crossing Guard.”

South Dakota has a couple of unique sex trafficking stages with the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and a pheasant hunting season that attracts hundreds of outdoors enthusiasts from around the country.

“Anytime you have large groups of men gathering, you’re going to have the potential for sex trafficking problems,” Johnson said. “That’s just the reality.”

Child prostitution victim warns of sex trade on ships

Police, border officials ignore concerns of First Nations women, advocates say

By Jody Porter, CBC News

Sep 5, 2013



Bridget Perrier, who worked as a child prostitute in Thunder Bay, Ont., says police need to do more to keep indigenous women safe. (Jody Porter/CBC)
Bridget Perrier, who worked as a child prostitute in Thunder Bay, Ont., says police need to do more to keep indigenous women safe. (Jody Porter/CBC)

An Anishinabe woman who worked as a child prostitute in Thunder Bay, Ont., is speaking out after reports from an American researcher saying indigenous women are being sold on ships in Lake Superior.

The researcher, Christine Stark, said her ‘exploratory’ research includes interviews with First Nations women who say they were trafficked on ships between Thunder Bay and Duluth, Minnesota.

Bridget Perrier recalls working as a prostitute on ships in Lake Superior. She said police need to do more to keep indigenous women safe.

“I’m sure if these ships were bringing in big amounts of drugs [the police] would be on it,” the 37-year-old said. “But what about the girls that disappear?”

Native Canadian women sold on U.S. ships, researcher says

“First Nations girls are targeted and that’s my biggest concern is that there are bull’s eyes put on them and no one is doing anything,” she added.

More than a decade ago, she worked as a prostitute on about 20 different ships at Thunder Bay’s port, the first time at the age of 12, she said.

Sailors often had limited time when they were allowed off their vessels, so they’d come to the bars and pick up groups of girls to take back to their quarters, Perrier said.

“I remember going on the ship and I had a bad feeling,” she said. “And I remember the one guy taking me and showing me they had jail cells in the boat and I thought, ‘Oh God, this is it. Who is going to look for me?'”

“And then he made the comment about Lake Superior being so deep and cold that they would never find one of them,” she added. “And at that point I knew we were in trouble.”

Didn’t disclose her identity

The ship left the Thunder Bay port and ended up in Minnesota. She was able to make her way back home, but she said many others never did.

“I never disclosed that I was First Nations when I did sex work,” she said. “Because First Nations girls get paid less, and I didn’t want to get hurt.”

She dyed her hair blonde and her fair skin allowed her to pass.

Now, working as a counsellor and advocate, Perrier said sex trade workers in Thunder Bay have told her the so-called ‘ship parties’ are still going on.

But police on both sides of the border deny that. Thunder Bay police say they are unaware of any prostitution at the ports in that city. The Duluth Police Department is skeptical that it’s possible to smuggle women off ships in America.

“Ever since 9/11, our ports have been tighter and tighter,” said Duluth police Sgt. Jeremiah Graves. “I can look over the hill and see the ships out in the bay, they’re not parked at the docks like they used to be.”

Graves said he’s looking into Christine Stark’s research on sex trafficking and believes they refer to historical accounts.

The chair of indigenous governance at Ryerson University in Toronto says it’s time officials find out for sure. Pam Palmater said a full inquiry into the trafficking of indigenous women in North America is urgently needed.

The Native Women’s Association has documented the cases of 600 missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada in the past 30 years. Some of them may have disappeared on a ship into the United States. But no one knows for sure because no formal investigations have been done, Palmater said.

“The fact that you have murdered and missing women in this country and a real lack of response from the police, what kind of indirect message does that send to Canadians?” she asked.”That they’re [indigenous women] not worthy, they’re not worthy of protection.”

The federal government said it is addressing concerns about the trafficking of First Nations women. Public Safety Canada is launching an awareness campaign in partnership with the National Association of Friendship Centers later this fall.

Palmater said that’s not enough, but it’s up to non-aboriginal Canadians to create change.

“Politicians and government expect First Nations to be concerned about this and to advocate on their own behalf,” she said. “But when non-First Nations people say this is a massive injustice and we wouldn’t want this happening to our kids, politicians are more likely to listen.”