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  • Nina Gulbransen

One Native Child, Thousands of Native Women

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

On June 27, 2023, a missing fourteen-year-old Native American girl was found on the military base of Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, California. The child had been reported missing a little over two weeks earlier by her grandmother on June 13. She was located inside the military barracks and was allegedly raped by a Marine on base. The child’s aunt has claimed that the girl was sex-trafficked by the officer, stating that “she had been sold to a soldier for sex.” There has been little to no information released by military officials regarding the identity of the Marine in whose custody the child was found, the reasoning behind why the young child was found on a military base (which is known for its extensive security protocol), or whether the Marine will face any punishment for the alleged rape and kidnapping. NCIS spokesperson Jeff Houston has reported that no one has yet been charged in the case. While this case appears to have halted any legal progressions or explanations, it opens a window into the insidious and pervasive issue of sexual abuse of Native American women in the United States.

Amnesty International highlighted this abuse as a human rights crisis and released a summation of the issue. In this summation, Amnesty International highlights that Native American women are 2.5 times more likely than other races to be raped in their lifetimes, and at least 86% of their rapists are non-Native men. The victims of these crimes often lack the resources needed to prosecute their abusers, such as rape kits, which are critical to pursuing criminal proceedings. Beyond the lack of resources and the higher rates of abuse faced by Native women, these women have no recourse if they are assaulted on their reservations by non-Native men. Under a 1978 Supreme Court decision, non-Native men who assault men on reservations cannot be arrested or prosecuted by tribal authorities. One could venture to think this grievous oversight could be alleviated through federal prosecution; however, “when tribal law enforcement sent sexual-abuse cases to the FBI and U.S. Attorney Offices, federal prosecutors declined more than two-thirds of them, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report.” This leaves Native victims of sexual abuse by their oppressors turning to face obstacles in any direction they turn to seek help.

The issue of sexual abuse is thus compounded by the higher rates at which Native women are assaulted and the lack of accountability or recourse provided to the victims.

Although human sex trafficking is an issue that should concern all women, indigenous women are disproportionately targeted. The Immigration and Human Rights Law Review highlights that the FBI found that, despite making up only 10% of the population, Native women make up 40% of all sex trafficking victims. In an even more striking statistic, indigenous people make up a tiny 1.1% of the United States population while simultaneously accounting for nearly 25% of human trafficking victims. These numbers imply a systematic abuse of the Native population by the trafficking industry that is not being appropriately addressed through local or federal public policy. In light of such realities, the case of the 14-year-old Native child found at Camp Pendleton in the custody of a Marine serves as only a glimpse into the exploitation of Native women that often go ignored by the structures meant to protect victims.

The disproportionate targeting of Native women by traffickers and abusers alike calls into question, "why them?" Why do traffickers go after such a small part of the overall female population of the United States? Experts on the human trafficking of Native women claim that the answer to that question lies in the very identity and lived experience of the Native peoples. Native women are more likely to become victims due to the higher levels of poverty faced by their demographic, and even when they are not being trafficked, they are more likely to turn to prostitution to survive. In the case of labor-based human trafficking, indigenous people are more at risk due to high rates of poverty, history of trauma, homelessness, experience with the damaged child welfare and foster care systems, drug and alcohol abuse, in addition to lower levels of law enforcement protection. In the case of sex trafficking, Native women are targeted due to their appearance, which can serve to appeal to multiple fetishes, and also as a result of the abandonment they face from the federal government that commandeered their homeland. The issue of human trafficking is highly relevant and incredibly damaging to the Native American community, and the responsibility to address the issue falls upon both tribal and federal representatives and upon the citizens of the United States to hold leaders accountable for the lacking protections available to Native victims.

With the case of the child found at Camp Pendleton, the issue of rampant sexual abuse and sex trafficking within the Native community was temporarily amplified throughout the U.S. media. However, the issue has once again become muted to the background as the media cycle churns on, after the Marine who was found with the girl was not charged following an internal investigation, which has resulted in radio silence from the reporting community that initially brought the case to the public’s attention. Yet, the threat to the female indigenous constituency remains: what does a tribal government do when there are no resources to hold rapists and traffickers accountable?

There are several initiatives aiming to educate the Native community on how to escape trafficking and prostitution, both of which tend to start with childhood sexual abuse. However, these initiatives are only one piece of the puzzle that is addressing the issue of sex trafficking and rape within Native American communities. It would be an impactful step toward a solution for federal investigative authorities to take on more cases of sexual abuse of Native women, a step that these bodies are currently failing to take. Another effective measure would be for Congress to pursue bills that would strengthen the protections Native women have, in addition to approving more funding for Native communities to ensure that essential items like rape kits are available to the victims of rampant sexual abuse. All in all, more must be done, and the issue of sex trafficking must be amplified to more ears to make any difference in the lives of the abused and abandoned.

We may never know what happened to the child who brought eyes to the issue of Native sex trafficking, but there is hope in the awareness her case brought to the plight of indigenous women and people.

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