In 2003, some friends on White Earth reservation said, “Get a feast and gifts together. We have an elder we want you to meet.” Always nervous when I have to cook for elders, as I have limited cooking skills, I prepared to meet with him for an afternoon. I didn’t know why I was meeting with him. We drove out to his house a few days later. After passing him asema (tobacco), we began eating. I had no idea why I was there and I did not tell him anything about my work or me. After we finished, he talked. I listened. He said it’s importance not to blame prostituted women. He also said that the Anishinaabe blood line is all around the world because of slavery. That surprised me. The academic texts I had read stated that there had been a minimal amount of slavery of Indigenous people, yet his words made it sound much more extensive. I believed him.
Fast forward fifteen years and I sat outside a Minneapolis coffee house, soaking up the spring sun. My semester at the University of Minnesota at Duluth had just ended and I was glad to be reading a book of my own choosing. The book I read on my first day of freedom from academic texts was The Other Slavery, by historian Andres Resendez. His research reveals that Europeans enslaved 2.5-5 million Indigenous people, a significantly higher number than previously estimated by academics. A few years earlier, as part of my graduate work, I had conducted primary research (in collaboration with my graduate program and Mending the Sacred Hoop) about sex trafficking of Native women and youth in the port of Duluth. The women’s and men’s stories were still raw and intense. What I read on that hot day collaborated what they’d told me. The enormity of those connections overwhelmed me. I snapped the book shut and was transported back to sitting with the elder many years earlier.
Since that day in the sun, I’ve found other sources that outline a slave trade of Indigenous people that began when, on his first trip, Columbus sent “…four caravels loaded to capacity with 550 Natives back to Europe to be auctioned off in the markets of the Mediterranean” (Resendez, 2016, p. 3-4). On his third journey Columbus wrote in his journals that “A hundred castellanoes are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten are now in demand” (Columbus, 2003). Other sources state that the slave trade of Indigenous people spanned “from as far west as New Mexico (then Spanish territory) northward to the Great Lakes, and southward to the Isthmus of Panama” (Gillio-Whitaker, 2021). Indigenous people were enslaved in construction, plantation, and mining in North America and sold to European plantation and mining outposts in the Caribbean and European countries, with many dying in the trans-Atlantic journey (Gillio-Whitaker, 2021). Every time I read about research uncovering the slave trade of Indigenous people, I return to sitting with the elder on White Earth in his small rez house. The mystery of meeting with him all those years ago seems clearer. His words are a gift that further strengthen my resolve to support the knowledge of Native women and youth caught in these systems of sexual exploitation.
Discussions of slavery typically do not include sexually-based violence against women, girls, and Two-Spirits. One thing I appreciate about The Other Slavery is that Resendez includes the historical sexual exploitation of enslaved women and girls and connects it with contemporary systems of sexual violence. He says that of the enslavement of Indigenous people on Turtle Island, Indigenous women and girls brought the highest prices because of their reproductive capacity and sexual abuse. He goes on to write that the slave trade Europeans established on Turtle Island is the precursor for the current sex trafficking in the U.S. (Resendez, 2016, p. 6). Therefore, contemporary sex trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation of Indigenous women and girls are central components of colonization or, as my we’ehn Earl Hoaglund used to say, the “attempted genocide.” The sexual exploitation of Native women and youth has been institutionalized in this country since European men came over on their ships.
Just as some of the paved roads we travel on now were the paths our ancestors used, contemporary sex trafficking of Native women and youth is rooted in the slave and trafficking routes established long ago. The elder knew about the slavery of Anishinaabe before Resendez found evidence in the records. Writing something down in a book doesn’t make it true just as passing knowledge down by oral traditions doesn’t make it false. Who is believed and who is heard in this country is about who has the most political power and social value. Maddeningly, the same values that dishonored and viewed Native women as “squaws” historically are the reasons Native sex trafficking victims and survivors are all too invisible or dishonored in our current culture.
In order to end the current sex trafficking of Native women and youth we must challenge the dominant narratives about the history of the attempted genocide of Native people along with the way this society blames victims of sexual violence, especially organized sexual violence, otherwise known as sex trafficking. One of the reasons I am conducting historical research by going through the dominant culture’s own records is because I know that the dominant culture disbelieves, discredits, and blames Native women for the violence perpetrated against us.
As is often said, the “winner,” in other words those in power, write history. I would add, those in power craft and control the ongoing contemporary narrative for their own benefit. Will we make space for, listen to, and believe the voices that have long been silenced, ignored, and deemed “lacking in credibility?”
The Native women and youth who are vulnerable to or being abused now know how and where it’s happening, what needs to change, and who is committing the abuse. They should be listened to and believed instead of being summarily discounted and ignored. It’s time to trust Native women. It’s time to stop those who perpetrate and protect systems of organized rape. It’s time to change the institutions that maintain a culture that has been built on the hidden history of genocide, slavery, and sexual abuse of Native women.
It’s your call, Minnesota.
“A Feast and a Gift” is the first in a series of four blog posts about sex trafficking of Native women and youth in Minnesota, written by Chris Stark. The other topics will be Accountability, Demand, and The Women. Chris Stark has been a grass roots organizer and writer for thirty-three years. She is Anishinaabe and Cherokee.
Click here to watch her story.