Sexual Exploitation of Native Women: Challenging the Shame

Last week, Indian Country Today published a story by independent journalist and photographer Mary Annette Pember (Red Cliff Tribe of Wisconsin Ojibwe) about generations of American Indian women who have been sexually exploited—in Duluth, Minn., of all places.

Pember begins her story with Mary G.:

Mary G. was born from the boats. Her children were born from the boats too, all fathered through her liaisons with male customers. She has never known anything else. Like generations of Native girls and women before her, Mary and her family are inextricably tied to prostitution in the great port city of Duluth, Minnesota. Long before the term sex trafficking entered the public lexicon and began appearing in headlines, Native women like Mary and her mother Ruthie were lured into prostitution. Largely driven by poverty and homelessness as well as an underlying racism that sanctioned the sexual degradation of Native women, generations of them have sold themselves to survive.

For years the citizens of Duluth, as in so many other cities, looked the other way at the disreputable exchanges between prostitutes and seamen. They were discounted as part of the cities rough-and-tumble harbor culture and reputation. And prostitution, the world’s oldest profession, was seen as a benign vice, a victimless crime, an example of ‘boys being boys.’

If it’s a hard story to read, it was an even harder one to report—especially for Pember. Last week, she shared her thoughts on the personal and professional challenges of reporting on violence against women and the need for all of us to stop acting as though male sexuality is an unstoppable urge.

Mary Annette Pember, on deciding to write about such a difficult topic:

I didn’t want to write the story. The story found me. I had done a story for The Progressive about the rates of sexual assault among Native women—the Amnesty International report. Editor Matt Rothschild wanted me to do it;  I didn’t, but he was insistent. Then as I started doing it, it became increasingly personal. Then I did stories about my own experiences of being sexually assaulted. That was back in 2009. It’s taken me a long time to do this.

It was personally very challenging for me because I just got closer and closer to what I call that deep, deep shame that Native women have. It’s that element of historical trauma–which has become such a buzzword it’s losing its meaning. We’re told we’re just dirty. That was always the message my mom got in boarding school–you have to get cleaned up. But you can never get cleaned up enough. You’re seen sort of as an animal, and that comes from early on, Contact days, really. It’s this sort of elemental, primordial thing we’re seen to have by mainstream white folks–that we are sort of animal …

And the really horrible thing is we do it ourselves. I grew up with that–that shame of our sexuality, the shame of being Indian. But then there was this tremendous pride, too. My mother gave me strength to do this; I felt her there with me.

I just have to keep poking, like it’s this scab or something. I am absolutely compelled to take some of the power away from this shame, this unfair shame that we have … that we have actively participated in. I am just actually compelled to keep poking at that. For myself, and for me and my mom, and if other Indian women get something that’s helpful to them along the way, wow, what a gift is that?

On the challenges of reporting on such an intensely personal story:

It was really far more painful than I would have ever anticipated. It was so personal. With Mary, it was like looking in the mirror. She’s a half-breed like me. She’s about my age.

When I was driving up to her house–this little house at the end of a long, uneven sidewalk–she was standing in the doorway waiting for me, and it was like I knew her. Like she was a relative waiting for me. It was a really intimate thing, and I was blindsided by that.

Sitting in her living room, it was like sitting in one of my relative’s living rooms. She could be a relative. You know Indians [laughs], we’re all related to one another. She could be a cousin.

Also, Indian people just don’t share that kind of stuff. I knew how hard it was for her.

It was a personal challenge. It was  a challenge to my sobriety, which is the single most important thing in my life. I had to keep really close in prayer. I talked to a lot of women and I did take good care of myself. Thank God I’m sober.

And I didn’t have any money [to report on the story]. I’d crash with friends and relatives. I couldn’t get anyone to support me on it, though I applied for some fellowships. [This] is a very classist issue. And when you talk about the depths of racism, people who think they get it don’t. It’s too scary.

You know, there’s this illusion, like these women are prostituting themselves by choice. Well, where does choice come from? Power. So these women, what do they say? ‘Well, I could be a phlebotomist … no, wait, I’m going to sell my cunt 20 times a day, or I’ll suck dick 20 times a day.’

There’s this whole thing about male sex–it’s the wind and the water and the sea. It’s this unstoppable force of nature. How did that emerge?

The city of Duluth, it’s a very nice city–and then there’s all those girls ‘down there,’ it’s such a shame. Yeah, who’s going to see those girls? Men, you know? Why are they doing that? Because it’s okay. Boys will be boys. It’s the wind and the water and the sea, and they’ve got to take care of that.

What do you hope people will do after reading your story?

I hope that people would take a pretty hard look at that their actions, or their inaction, and the outcomes.

There’s the arrogance of white folks, who think they can make it better, fix it. Awareness of it is the real start. That’s the start of doing something. Of [recognizing] the implications of your action or inaction.

A while back, in Cloquet, Minn., there was a big sting operation in that little town and they busted all these guys and printed their names in this little paper, The Pine Journal.

A woman who works as an activist had someone say to her, ‘Now are you proud of yourself? A friend of  ours got arrested and it ruined his whole life.’

So, maybe [people need to be] questioning that, telling your sons [that sex] is not this unstoppable urge. It’s not like going to the restroom. You’ve got to eat, you’ve got to go to the restroom. The rest is choice.

I’m just glad the story is done. It was really hard to do, emotionally so hard. But I hope we can get some buzz going, some real conversation.

For Pember’s full articles, see “Native Girls Are Being Exploited and Destroyed at an Alarming Rate” and “That Beautiful Oglala Lakota Girl in the LIVE GIRLS! Booth.”

Photo of Duluth shoreline from Flickr user dobak under Creative Commons 3.0.


Laura Paskus is a New Mexico-based reporter and radio producer.