STILL KICKIN HERO JANUARY 2018
EVERY MONTH, OUR PROCEEDS SUPPORT A NEW PERSON OR ORGANIZATION WHO DEFINES WHAT IT MEANS TO BE STILL KICKIN.
THIS MONTH, WE'RE SUPPORTING AN ORGANIZATION THAT SERVES AN OFT-NEGLECTED MINNESOTA COMMUNITY.
You probably don’t need reminding 2017 was a doozy. Like, the queen of doozies. But at Still Kickin, we kinda specialize in doozies. So buckle up, because we’re kicking off 2018 by supporting an incredible organization tackling a uniquely complicated issue.
By now, you’ve probably heard the Super Bowl is visiting Minnesota this year. (If you hadn’t, we’re sorry to wake you up from that blissfully ignorant slumber.) And inevitably, every year as the Super Bowl nears, the headlines start popping up. The ones that state the Super Bowl is the largest sex trafficking event in the country. In response, local government officials promise residents they have plans in place to deal with the surge in trafficking that supposedly occurs over the big weekend.
There are a lot of problems with this. For one, the claim that the Super Bowl is the largest sex trafficking event in the country has been disproven. Those headlines are at best overstated and at worst inaccurate. Because in actuality, sex trafficking is happening all over, all the time, regardless of whether or not a bunch of dudes are tossing a football around. There’s actually very little nationwide data on human trafficking to begin with, which makes it difficult to track trends.
And for one particular Minnesota community, the issue of sex trafficking is even further complicated by hundreds of years of historical context.
Commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking have been ongoing issues within Minnesota’s American Indian community for centuries. Literally from the day white men arrived on this patch of land and claimed it as theirs, Native women have been targets for sexual violence and exploitation.
“Trafficking is a generational experience,” says Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. “It’s been occurring since first contact."
In more recent history, the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 “encouraged” (note the sarcastic air quotes) Native populations to leave their homes and assimilate into urban American (read: white) culture. As an article in The Atlantic explains:
Though the act didn’t force people to leave their reservations, it made it hard for families to stay by dissolving federal recognition of most tribes, and ending federal funding for reservations’ schools, hospitals, and basic services—along with the jobs they created. Though the federal government paid for relocation expenses to the cities, and provided some vocational training, urban Native Americans faced high levels of job discrimination, and few opportunities for job advancement.
So they weren't forced, but they were definitely forced. And don't forget the genocidal practices that over the years have obliterated the American Indian community, such as the murders that occurred during the Dakota War of 1862.
If this is starting to feel like a really depressing history lesson, that’s because it is one. But this context is crucial to understanding the issues American Indian women face in Minnesota today. The trauma is still very, very real. And folks like Patina Park are working relentlessly to support these women and educate the rest of us on the complexity of the situation.
As is so often the case, the cycle begins in childhood. In Minnesota, 1 in 3 American Indian or Alaska Native children -- 36 percent, specifically -- live in poverty. (In contrast, 9 percent of white children in Minnesota live in poverty.) These American Indian children are often removed from their homes and placed in child protective services. This means they are pulled from their tight-knit Native communities and stripped of their heritage and identity.
“If kids run and try to reconnect [with their American Indian families], they get punished and lose privileges and end up in detention in some cases,” says Park. “Many learn from a pretty young age the reinforced message that there’s something wrong with them.”
And as many of us unfortunately know, foster parents are not always as nurturing and loving as we’d hope they would be.
“There’s a lot of abuse, physical and emotional,” Park says. “And then they ‘age out’ of the [foster care] system, and they’re left with very little support. And if you’ve grown up in an environment where you’re disconnected from family and a sense of who you are as a person, you’re incredibly vulnerable to exploitation.”
Park says a common misconception surrounding commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, especially regarding the American Indian community, is the idea that victims are always forced into it, end of story. So they’ve gotta be thankful once they’re “rescued” (a word MIWRC doesn’t use but is often used by law enforcement) from their situation, right?
In reality, it’s much more complicated than that. In many cases, these women have grown up without support systems after being taken from their Native families. They lose touch with their American Indian heritage. Then, they are discriminated against because of that heritage when they try and enter the workforce after aging out of the foster care system. (Because yeah, that sounds SUPER fair, right?) In many cases, the pimp becomes the one person these women feel they can trust.
“I’ve done a lot of training with law enforcement and prosecutors, and one of the messages I really want to leave with them is that for a lot of these young people they’re attempting to ‘rescue’ from a pimp, in the mind of that young person, this is not a pimp. It’s their boyfriend. It’s someone they love very dearly,” Park says. “So when the victim isn’t grateful for the ‘rescue,’ people get frustrated very quickly.”
Furthermore, when these women are criminalized and prosecuted for doing what needs to be done to take care of their families (because, unsurprisingly, the wage gap between white and indigenous peoples is huge), that lack of trust continues.
“We will often flippantly say, ‘I would do anything for my loved one or for my children.’” Park says. “And in the context of my community, many of them do do anything for their kids or for their loved ones. And unfortunately, you have individuals who are aware of that vulnerability, and they exploit it.”
To break the cycle and support women in these situations, it’s imperative they aren’t shamed or persecuted for their actions. And it's important that we learn and understand the historical implications.
“It’s about reconnecting them with who they are as people, empowering them and also dealing with the trauma,” Park says. “It’s a sad thing to say, but the trauma itself -- of the assault or trafficking -- is not the biggest issue, here. It’s the lifelong and multi-generational historical context of it. And dealing with that first.”
So if you see one of those exaggerated Super Bowl headlines in the coming weeks, keep in mind the bigger picture. Because commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking aren’t a problem one weekend a year in one city alone. They’re a problem all the time, everywhere. And it’s a complicated issue with multiple variables involved that doesn’t have an easy answer. Thankfully, organizations like the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center are here to help solve it. And your support this month will help them do it.
“We’re not here to ‘rescue’ anyone,” Park says. “We don’t see anyone who comes here as victims. We actually say, ‘You did what you had to do to survive and feed your kids and keep a roof over their heads, and that’s commendable. That’s not shameful. And now, you don’t want to do that, because it’s dangerous, so what can we do to help you?’”
For more information about this important organization, visit the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center website.