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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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