Recourse for Trafficked Native Women in the Duluth Harbor

by Christine Stark

I am of Anishinaabe and Cherokee ancestry and a MSW student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Six years ago, on the White Earth reservation, an elder told me how the Anishinaabe bloodline is found across the world due to slavery. He then added that prostituted women are not to blame for being in prostitution. I have not seen him since.

"Noose" Photo by Flickr user Randen Pederson and used under a Creative Commons license. Duluth, Minnesota USA.

"Noose" Photo by Flickr user Randen Pederson and used under a Creative Commons license. Duluth, Minnesota USA.

Three years later, after presenting at Black Bear Casino on a report I co-authored, “Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota,” another elder stopped me in the foyer to tell me how Native women, girls, and boys have been sold for sex on the ships in the Duluth port. She said some have been shipped into other countries. She gave me details I had not heard before, then turned on her heel and disappeared into the casino lights. I have not seen her since.

And just over two years ago, in Salt Lake City, I attended a presentation on trafficking by a U.S. Attorney. Dozing off and on throughout the presentation, I woke fully when the attorney mentioned “maritime law.” I called out to the attorney, “We have a situation in Duluth that we were told we cannot do anything about legally because it is international waters. It’s hard to believe that is true. Is it?”

“No,” the presenter said. “There are specific laws to deal with that situation.” A man sitting in the row in front of me turned around. “Are you from Minnesota?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “I can tell you why you were told that,” he responded. “Native advocates were told this so you wouldn't pursue anything legally.”

In January 2013, I transferred from a Twin Cities-based MSW program to the University of Minnesota Duluth’s MSW program. A week into my coursework, a friend in Duluth told me that a Duluth authority figure publicly claimed that the trafficking of Native American women on ships was not an issue. Another friend of mine said that the authorities were trying to rewrite the narrative after the release of the report I co-authored “Garden of Truth,” in which nearly half of the women we interviewed were from Duluth.

In “Garden of Truth,” 92 percent of those interviewed wanted to leave prostitution immediately, 72 percent had been sexually assaulted as a child by an average of four perpetrators, and nearly two-thirds of the women had relatives that went through the boarding schools. Many of the women spoke eloquently of the connections they saw between prostitution and the colonization of Indian people. “I have an idea,” I said to my Duluth friend. “Interview women who had been on the ships and document their information."

I created a questionnaire with feedback from other Native advocates. I interviewed Native women who had been trafficked and prostituted on the ships as well as Native men who had information to share. What emerged was a system of sexual exploitation involving the complicity, perpetration, and collaboration of ship captains, taxi cab drivers, hotels, brothels, street pimps, dockworkers, organized crime, gangs, and others in Duluth, Superior, and the surrounding area. This system lured and coerced Native women, girls, and boys (and sometimes infants) onto the ships for prostitution and trafficking – what was often euphemistically referred to as “the parties on the boats.”

In May, 2013 at a conference in St. Paul, I mentioned the ships. To my surprise, an Anishinaabe woman from Canada told me after the panel that she had been sold on the ships from Thunder Bay to the Duluth port starting at age twelve. She recounted a similar story, from a Canadian point-of-view, to those of the women and men in Duluth and Superior. Those in Duluth recounted women, children, and even babies being bought and sold for sex on the ships for decades. They talked about the connections among selling women and youth on the ships with other businesses in Duluth and Superior, including taxi services, brothels, hotels, street pimps and bars. One of the women said about her years on the ships, “It was hell. Pure hell.”

Later that day, I approached a lawyer at the conference. “Listen,” I said. “This is what the women are saying.” I relayed the stories about the ships. “We’ve been told there is nothing we can do legally. We’ve also been told there is something we can do legally. What’s the deal?” From her I learned that there are lawyers lined up across the country who would take on a case like this. I learned it is a civil case with a statute of limitations of ten years and that The Port Authority, the dock owners, and others can be sued.

A few months later, at dinner with a friend who happened to be a legal scholar on disability, I briefed her on the ships. After I finished, she stated, “The women could use state Protection and Advocacy Systems (P&As) for people with disabilities. People who have been trafficked will be dealing with more severe mental health consequences due to extremes of traumatic stress, and may therefore be eligible for services and advocacy through P&As. In that event, P&As would prospectively have legal standing to take various types of legal action on their behalf.”

A few weeks later, on August 3, 2013, the Star and Tribune published an Op Ed piece I wrote about the “Garden of Truth.” After 25 years of activism, I have learned you never know when you will get another opportunity to be heard, so I added three sentences about the ships. Much to my surprise, the Duluth Tribune picked up the Op Ed piece and a vacationing CBC reporter from Canada saw the spread and requested an interview. Canadians are concerned about the ship connection because in the past thirty years over 1,100 First Nation women in Canada have been reported missing or murdered and people want to know what happened to them. One interview led to another and the ship story lit up Canadian media like an ore boat at night.

While it is important that survivors and advocates know all the legal options available to them, it is extremely difficult for survivors of the ships to initiate a lawsuit and to remain safe during litigation. Nearly all of the women I interviewed are poor, homeless, or semi-homeless. They have suffered tremendous physical, spiritual, and psychological trauma. These barriers keep most from ever pursuing legal recourse. Anyone harmed on those boats, or harmed on shore by the crew, who chooses to pursue a civil lawsuit needs protection and support from individuals, advocates, and the community. Right now that support base does not exist. If any of the women or men harmed on those boats qualifies for P&As some help can be provided, making it slightly more plausible for those trafficked on the ships to stand up to the entrenched power.

Native individuals, families, and the community have suffered tremendously from the sexual exploitation of our relatives on the ships and from the state and federal governments’ lack of protection. The losses suffered by Native families and the Native community due to the trafficking are deep, making the enormity of the harm and pain endured over generations difficult to comprehend. In Minnesota, a civil lawsuit targeting businesses and authorities that perpetuated and profited from the trafficking of Native women and youth is one option for addressing the historical and ongoing sexual exploitation. A civil lawsuit could also be used to remedy the harm caused by systems of trafficking at any port in the U.S.

In Anishinaabe ways, women are the protectors and carriers of the water. As we move toward telling the whole story of this country, and this region in particular, we make healing for those harmed a possibility. We move toward balance. And, at least in the American justice system, civil law is about balance.

This work was done in conjunction with Mending the Sacred Hoop.

Chris StarkAbout the author: Christine Stark is a speaker, organizer, trainer, and an award-winning writer and visual artist of Anishinaabe/Cherokee ancestry. Her essays, poems, and creative non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications. Her first novel, Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation, was a Lambda Literary Finalist. Her poem, "Momma’s Song", was released by Fred Ho and the Afro Asian Music Ensemble as a double manga CD. She is also a co-editor of Not for Sale, an international anthology about prostitution, trafficking, and pornography and a co-author of the groundbreaking “Garden of Truth: The Prostitution and Trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota.” She teaches writing part-time and is an MSW student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. For more information about her work, please visit her website.

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26 comments on “Recourse for Trafficked Native Women in the Duluth Harbor
  1. Doris Sivertson says:

    I just happened to read this article, and am amazed and saddened by such happenings. I am a Caucasian woman, a native Duluthian who is presently living in Grand Marais, MN. I am an 80 year old woman who is unable to do much to help, but just want my voice heard that hopefully you will find help in stopping this trafficking. I will also keep all survivers in my prayers. Thank you for listening.

  2. Reyna Crow says:

    We are very grateful for your work here Chris, and your willingness to tell the truth. I hope that we will be able to build the support network that is necessary here in Duluth to increase the safety of survivors so that it’s really possible to leave and heal. I think that the state P&A system `should’ advocate for survivors but that they should always have an experienced (survivor) advocate with them during all contacts with the system. Even when people are very well meaning, traumatic experiences don’t lend themselves well with the type of screening most of these agencies utilize. It would be great to see them develop a specialist in this particular area.

  3. Reva says:

    I used to live in duluth bk in 2000…a friend and I were at The Red Lion and before closing a guy asked us if we wanted to go party on the ships? We turned him down.Thankful we were street smart. ♥

  4. Maggie Kazel says:

    Thank you Christine, for your hard work on behalf of so many – and many thoughts and prayers for all the survivors who spoke up, and all those who could not.

  5. Jana Studelska says:

    Keep talking, keep writing. I am listening, and I am looking for ways to help. When I drive down the hill and see the ships at anchor, I think of the children and women who are being trafficked…rather than the beautiful scenery. Keep talking!

  6. Sheila Packa says:

    As a former social worker in Duluth, I heard stories about this situation from a woman who was on the boats. She was exploited because of her mental illness. It was difficult for her to get help. Eventually, she was able to get to a safe place, and I hope others will too. Thank you so much for doing this work, Christina Stark! Women’s lives depend on it. As Audre Lorde said, silence will not protect anybody.

  7. judith minter says:

    Thank you for your diligent work in creating awareness of this terrible exploitation. That is the first step in ending this. Even though I live very far from Duluth and had no idea this existed, I am one of many who care.

  8. Julie says:

    Disgrace…our women, children and babies…unf***ing-believable

  9. Bethany Sewald says:

    The first time I ever heard about the ships was listening to a speaker talk about a report called “Maze of injustice” (here’s the link Ever since every time I see one of those ships I feel sick and pray! I’ve mostly been praying (like I hope everyone will) for guidance on how to help stop this tragedy. It is so encouraging to me to see it get some press finally!

  10. Julie Wolf says:

    I am horrified at the thought of this happening. I will never look at the ships again without thinking of this.

  11. Kaaydah Schatten says:

    Thank you for giving a voice to the girls and
    the generations of girls that have been so
    oppressed by this slavery in the 21st century.
    Breaking the silence is the only way to heal.

  12. AnnGreer says:

    This is an appalling story, especially knowing that these human trafficking operations continue to this day. Thank you for exposing the truth about the exploitation of our innocent brothers and sisters. I too have experienced the trauma of being a victim of human trafficking and am now a practicing MSW in New Mexico. I would very much like to get involved in the fight against this terrible injustice, and if any group is forming, please contact me at Wado.

  13. LoriH says:

    i am deeply saddened by this information. The thought that infants have been trafficked breaks my heart. Those who have already been traumatized must be helped, it is true. What will be done in the way of prevention so that we don’t have to be treating victims after the fact. Law suits can be long and arduous and only somewhat effective. In the meantime where will the programs come from that are needed to provide support and, in particular, empowerment to these young native peoples?

  14. DSN says:

    When I was a young man working in Dutch, there was talk amount my crew mates of visiting prostututes or even having them come to the ships via taxi. At the time I could not articulate my absolute lack of desire to participate; I mean there I was 24, male, heterosexual and I hadn’t even seen a woman in months and the idea of seeing a prostitute just made me vaguely uneasy in a way I couldn’t explain. Years later, father of two daughters I am so grateful that I listened to my gut. Over the years I have heard women talk about their experiences in prostitutions and always known I could have been the perpetrator but for that uneasy feeling that it was some how “wrong”, because certainly no one else on that boat that night did.

  15. Michele Naar-Obed says:

    Thanks Chris for all that you do. Please know that Hildegard House is ready to help with support work in whatever way we can.

  16. Gail says:

    Chi Migwech Ogichida Eqway!!!

  17. sara clark says:

    I am absolutely floored. I can not believe this has occurred and for so long. I can not believe it continues. Had it been any Caucasian women, the ships would have been attacked. I am Caucasian. I am horrified. Lets get this out in the Media worldwide. Expose the bastards and save our tribal women and children. We all have a duty, a human one to stand up and fight. I dont care where your from, the color of your skin, or your affiliation. How can we as a general public standby knowing of this. Some of my family are Lakota Sioux and it sickens me that these pooor Cherokee women are being trafficked. Please let us know how and what we can do. The Duluth City Government needs to stop covering this up and cowardly standing in the background. There is no way in hell you dont know whats going on. Sick!!!! Get up and stand up people!!!!

  18. Richard Harbaugh says:

    Tourists love the ships. Duluth loves the tourists. An information campaign addressing the tourists in Canal Park would be difficult to stop and very disturbing to Duluth financial interests. Activists conducting such a campaign would gain considerable leverage by forcing the city to pressure Port Authority to clean up it’s act. All of our social action groups can agree to terms coordinating this type of action. Tourist season is on hold until next spring, so we have time to prepare a campaign plan, including leafleting, protest gatherings, and direct pressure on city officials. For example a banner drop off the lift bridge to greet the year’s first salty would attract press coverage. We can do this in the open and without resorting to secret planning, because there are many of us and actions can be coordinated among many social action groups. If there is any single issue lighting up the hideous face of the dark side of capitalism, this is it. Get up! Stand up! Speak up! Lift up the people, and the neighborhoods will thrive.

  19. Dianne Schell says:

    Who’s selling these women and children? This is outrageous and should not be allowed and tolerated – not in this country or anywhere else.

  20. Conni says:

    Very interesting article.However, I see many inaccuracies. It is a shame That when The story broke no one was held accountable For trafficking these women/girls. I myself am a Native Women who was there For 25 years. I am not proud Of this but nor am I ashamed.I was Never interviewed by any Police or investigators or people writing articles on Native Women and Shipping. Maybe I NEED to write the book and tell the Truth!

  21. Reyna Crow says:

    There will be a discussion tomorrow evening (Tues Nov 25) at Trepainier Hall near the Gimaajii on 2nd Street in Duluth to discuss ways that community members can take action to keep our youth safer from traffickers and other sexual predators. We welcome all to attend. The discussion will run from 7-9PM. I like Richard’s idea, and there are more but we need volunteers who’d carry it out.

  22. Jason says:

    Since 9/11 there are security guards at the bottom of the ramp of every boat. I did that job for almost three years in the Twin Ports and never once did anyone try to take an unauthorized person on to the boat. I think this unfortunate activity may have been common pre-2001, but these days with security in the port and frequent Coast Guard inspections, this stuff just can’t happen on the boat itself unless people went to really drastic measures to sneak past security, which I suppose is possible. With the continually rising crime rates in the Twin Ports I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still brothels and such for the sailors around town, though.

  23. Reyna Crow says:

    I have had friends tell me about this for at least 15 years, when they tried to get help they were called liars, histrionic, attention seekers and otherwise dismissed. Then we were told that this USED to happen, but is only a historic problem. That at least at the harbor, since 9/11 the security guards watching for `terrorism’ were preventing this. That is not what those targeted say, it is not what people speaking off record say, and it is NOT what this video, shot by reporter Kathleen Martens in January of 2013 says. Please watch the video clip as she and her photographer drive right up to one of the `guarded’ ramps. I have another clip I will look for too, that one is from either 2010 or 2011, and a cop (wearing his uniform) is speaking about this on record. Anyway, here is the Martens clip from just about one year ago:

  24. Beverly.Tymchuk says:

  25. Dawn Grace says:

    This is is so disturbing on so many levels that I don’t even know quite how to comment. I want to help in any way that I can. I’m not sure what that is and look forward to your emails pointing us the direction to end this. I’m so grateful that
    his is receiving light through social media. This needs to have the lid blown completely off so it can be dealt with.

  26. Jason says:

    I just had a chance to watch the video you posted. They drove up on a boat when it was laid up for the winter. The shipping season is usually closed from mid-December to late February/early March. In 2014, there was record ice on the Great Lakes and shipping didn’t start up until the middle of April. The shipping season closed early for the same reason in early December 2013.

    There was no security because there was no crew. There’s probably one maintenance guy on that boat in the video cleaning engines and other tasks that get done when a boat is out of service. The rest of the crew is gone home, and there is no security guard required by law for laid up boats. So yes, they were able to drive right up to it, but that is intentionally misleading.

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