WARNING: This is part of a series of stories to be published over the next few weeks that contain potentially trauma-triggering material.
The Ojibwe family woke to a terrific banging in the middle of the night, and then the door of their tiny, homemade bungalow on the outskirts of Taos burst open. “Does Naivara’s mom live here?” one of several men loudly demanded. Shocked, a woman we’ll refer to as Kai nodded wordlessly, as her 4- and 8-year-old grandchildren, Naivara’s children, cried in fear. (As with Kai, Naivara is not her real name; her family requested that all names be changed.)
The men, gang members, dumped Kai’s 32-year-old daughter on the floor and abruptly left. Naivara was unconscious and her skin was blue—she was in the midst of a heroin overdose. Kai got her to a hospital just in time for doctors to save her.
The men who dumped Naivara that night had trafficked her for sex in exchange for drugs, but apparently no longer had any use for her in this condition. However, once she recovered soon after she returned to ‘the life.’ In Santa Fe, that means living in hotels along Cerrillos Avenue that advertise low rates. She sold herself for $43.00, the cost of the room; she’d sell herself again for heroin. Over and over each day, the selling and the using, though if she got it backwards she’d sometimes wind up in debt to the gangs for her drugs. Then they demanded payment by any means necessary. They took her to other cities to work off her debt through prostitution. The locations are a blur to her now.
As she has done so many times before, Naivara disappeared after her overdose without explanation. Kai returned to her life, busying herself with raising her grandchildren while she was pursuing her dream of earning a college degree. “I didn’t really plan to be raising kids again at age 56,” she laughed wryly. ICTMN met Kai via social media where she fearlessly shared details of her family’s struggles. Even with the increased stress and demands on her time made by Naivara’s return, Kai has been uncompromising in her determination to expose the daily indignities that addiction has wrought for her family. She also describes the small triumphs and celebrates each step forward.
Using social media to document and reach out for help and advice from friends and fellow artists about her current situation has the tenor of performance art. It seems as though her desperation tells her to do the only thing she knows, reach out and create.
Kai is an artist in every sense of the word. Her body and life have been her canvas as she has lived a gypsy lifestyle, moving her children with her from one creative adventure to another, sometimes fleeing abusive men but always born out of inspiration.
She has found a community of kindred souls here on the outskirts of Taos and has lived here for several years.
Her bright and curious face is covered with several small tattoos, each a secret spiritual or creative marker in her life. Small and scrappy, she has lived a DIY life long before such a category existed. She hand winterized her little summer cabin so that it is snug and warm for her family year round. Crammed with colorful artwork, the home is clean, tidy and even organized in its own eccentric fashion. Her grandchildren have easy access to organic foods, books and art supplies. Although small, the kitchen with its propane stove is a wonder of well-used cast iron cookware, spices, lovingly handmade plates and mugs. She makes homemade blue corn pancakes with local butter on an ancient griddle for her grandbabies, talking all the while of her love of this place, land and the mountains.
Visiting her home and neighborhood bring back good memories of old style reservation style living in which roads were merely small spaces separating one eternal kitchen and living room where visiting neighbors was a far more natural and organic act than among suburban folk. The little enclave of houses exhibits that hardy “back to the land” ethic of the 1970s, better life through simple shared survival.
Kia’s house is a cobbled together affair of her whims and financial limitations. The big front window seems to have become an unintended sculpture of stained glass and found windowpanes that have created a combination greenhouse and passive heat generator. Chick-chick, the Rhode Island Red chicken from next-door wanders in when the front door is open to catch the warming winter sun. She settles confidently among the patch of red chard that grows just inside the door. Sometimes she leaves a fresh egg.
Sitting in Naivara’s kitchen, sipping strong coffee infused with a bit of cardamom invites an unhurried examination of the spectacular view of the mountains. One can sit in the sun and eat the air here for a long time in a way that makes the time feel well spent.
Swept along by Kai’s creative chaos, Naivara, however, always needed more.
As a youngster, Naivara was diagnosed as a special needs child and struggled with mental health and learning disabilities her entire life. Kai did not elaborate on Naivara’s diagnosis but noted that she has always struggled with the business of life. Easily led by others, she often got into trouble.
About three months ago, Kai received a call from someone who told her Naivara was in the hospital again, and in very bad shape. One of her customers, a 70-year-old meth addict, had held her captive in his house for weeks, using her for sex and providing her with heroin. At some point she grew feverish and unable to move, but the man took away her phone and ignored her pleas for help. Eventually he dropped her off at a hospital; she had developed spinal epidural abscesses, a dire outcome for some intravenous drug users. Doctors told Kai her daughter was paralyzed from the neck down and would likely never walk again.
“I had just decided that I was done with her (after the earlier incident); I just couldn’t take any more of her drama, her lies, her stealing. The kids and I have such a gentle little life here,” Kai said. “But she is my daughter. Indian women don’t give up on our children.”
Kai tossed her decision to make a hard break aside, and then spent many frantic days driving back and forth to a hospital in Albuquerque where Naivara had been airlifted. She advocated strongly for her, insisted on doing ceremony and using traditional healing practices for Naivara. After Naivara was transferred to a substandard rehab unit, she hounded the workers to keep her daughter’s diapers changed, to change her position so she wouldn’t develop bedsores. The care coordinators were not very forthcoming with therapy or plans for home health care; for Kai, the message was clear. “They seemed to be saying she deserved what happened to her,” she told me.
Kai helped Naivara get weaned off the daily doses of methadone doctors were administering to keep the symptoms of heroin withdrawal at bay. She rubbed her with special oils and sang medicine songs to her. She was determined that Naivara would walk again. When the initial medical crisis passed, Naivara’s care entered a new phase, one that required Kai and her daughter to navigate a bewildering thicket of in-patient and out-patient requirements. For all practical purposes, and for better or worse, that meant Naivara was coming home.
Sex trafficking survivors are not picture-perfect victims and that simple fact creates extraordinary obstacles to rehabilitation and sobriety. Over the course of several months, this writer and ICTMN embarked on an investigation that sought to look beyond the oft-quoted statistics of violence and sex abuse in Indian country in order to present a meaningful portrait of how individuals struggle to overcome some of the worst things life can throw at them. While not pretty, the real stories about surviving sex trafficking—as seen through the experiences of three young Native women living in various locations along the trafficking highway—are infused with spirit, resiliency and glimmers of hope. There are no picture perfect endings; the future of these women will hang in the balance even as we publish reports about them. However, although we did not look for it, a pattern emerged: All three have the love and support of their mothers; therefore they have a shot at survival. This simple bond, one of mothers caring for daughters, may well shine a light towards the long-term solution that transcends the hand-wringing and questions raised by contemporary studies (and research grants) and should be on the agenda of anyone who holds the keys to future funding for these endemic problems. It is the promise of genuine barefaced unconditional love or at least the knowledge that such a thing exists. As humans we need this if we have any hope of being whole.
At the ground level, and in a position to assist trafficking survivors and their kin are people like Sarah Edstrom, a certified sexual assault advocate at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. The MIWRC is nonprofit social and educational services organization providing education and support to American Indian women and their families. The organization maintains a Section 8 housing program, provides mental health and other support services to sex trafficking survivors, at-risk youth as well as numerous other programs for the Native community.
According to Edstrom, trafficking survivors may act out. They may be angry, loud, have bad attitudes and resist the tag of victim. They may use drugs or alcohol or both. They may have warrants out against them or histories of violent crime—or both. They may display a stubborn loyalty for an abusive pimp and refuse to bring charges against him. All of this comes with surviving ‘the life.’ Often, they end up getting kicked out of traditional women’s shelters serving homeless, domestic or sexual violence victims; they go back to exchanging sex for a place to sleep, food to eat and drugs to numb themselves.
Leaving ‘the life’ takes more than guts and the scanty services of a homeless shelter; it takes bottomless love, patience and support from at least one other individual. Unfortunately, few sex trafficking survivors have access to such precious assets. They swim against an enormous tide of indifference, blame and shame; most of them simply drown.
Sex trafficking as a topic has become enormously popular in the media, where it is treated as though it is new phenomena, especially when it involves children. Sex trafficking, however, is another way to describe prostitution, according to advocates who find little difference between the terms. Legally, sex trafficking differs from prostitution in that it involves force or coercion, or includes children.
Sex Trafficking, by definition, is coercive sexual violence, according to advocates like Vednita Carter, founder of Breaking Free, a Minneapolis based non-profit organization that helps women escape prostitution. Prostitution implies choice. However most women enter it at the average age of 12-14 when they were unable to make informed adult choices, according to Carter.
“We need to wrap our tiny brains around the notion of choice. They aren’t doing this because they have choices,” said Jessica Mantor, Safe Harbor Director at Life House in Duluth, Minnesota, which provides housing and support for homeless youth. “No one wants to live that life at age 14, 30 or 50. We need to rally around these women and show them some support.”
Histories of sexual trauma, lack of adult support, poverty and racism are the primary drivers of prostitution according to advocates and law enforcement. “Little girls don’t daydream of being prostituted women when they grow up,” said Carter.
Although prostitution has long been normalized as the world’s oldest profession, it is in reality the world’s oldest oppression of women, according to Carter. “Just because it’s been around for a long time,” she explained, “doesn’t make it right.”
Fortunately, recent attention on the sex trafficking of children has encouraged 16 states to create Safe Harbor Laws that no longer criminalize children exploited in prostitution and instead provide protection and services. These laws, unfortunately, seldom extend to those over the age of 18, who fall through the cracks of law enforcement and social service agencies.
Federal and most state statutes require adult sex trafficking survivors to press charges against their traffickers or pimps in order to receive victims’ services. However, that might be changing. Law enforcement and social service agencies are getting better at treating those arrested for prostitution as victims rather than criminals, according to Carter.
“Many of our clients are referred to us from law enforcement,” she said. Breaking Free is one of only a handful of organizations in the U.S. that serves adult sex trafficking survivors. Survivors who haven’t been charged with prostitution also come into contact with social services or law enforcement for such reasons such as homelessness, issues with children’s protection services or drug or other criminal activities.
Few women will identify themselves as having been involved with prostitution, according to advocates and law enforcement officials. “They are scared and ashamed; a lot of negative things come with branding yourself as a prostitute. They may fear having their children taken away, being denied benefits or housing as well as reprisal from pimps,” said Carter.
For instance, Naivara and Kai were too fearful to allow ICTMN to give their names to Molina Healthcare, the contracted Medicaid provider in the state of New Mexico. ICTMN asked Molina representatives about available mental health and addiction services for someone in Naivara’s condition, as well as to address the scant number of home aide hours offered to the family. Molina offers reimbursement for supplies used in traditional Native healing, and representatives offered to look into the family’s situation, but the women were too fearful that Naivara’s involvement in sex trafficking might cast too much blame on her, making her an “undeserving” victim. (For a closer look at the day-to-day dynamics of one small family trying to heal, please see Battle at Home: Traditional Spirit v. Addiction Spirit about Kai and Naivara.)
Historically, interactions with institutions such as social service agencies, law enforcement and medical facilities have not gone well for these women; they have been judged and blamed. According to Carter, institutions take away and punish. They don’t help.
“Many trafficking survivors turn tricks to get services that are lacking in the community,” said MIWRC’s Edstrom.
Safe housing is the greatest need for survivors, but for most, it’s often easier to say they are suffering from mental illness or are victims of sexual or domestic violence in order to get emergency shelter or other services.
Although emergency shelters receiving federal funding are required to house trafficking survivors, many are turned away or referred to other agencies.
Advocates interviewed by ICTMN would not go on the record for fear of reprisal, but scores shared examples of mainstream shelters, particularly those serving mostly non-Native clients, that have denied services to Native women who had criminal records, were intoxicated or had been sex trafficked.
ICTMN called several mainstream shelters serving women inquiring about service for sex trafficking victims. All said they would not deny them housing but some expressed concern that they might not be the best agency to meet the needs of trafficking survivors.
Regarding those shelters that hesitate to serve trafficking survivors, Janet Routzen, executive director of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Shelter on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota commented,
“We all try to do our best. If a woman is extremely intoxicated and acting out it can be dangerous for the other clients. Witnessing extreme behavior could trigger trauma for children in our shelters who are escaping similar situation.”
“It’s tough to find felon-friendly housing and much of the subsidized housing and shelters give preference to people with children. Many of the trafficking survivors have lost custody of their kids,” said Edstrom.
At last Kai brought Naivara home to her rustic little bungalow overlooking the pristine Sangre de Cristo Mountains. She struggled to make the little house wheelchair friendly. A friend of Kai’s built a ramp as well as a wooden set of DIY therapy bars for her to practice walking. Perhaps, Kai thought, Naivara would get well now.
Kai was shocked, however, to learn that Naivara had asked for and received a prescription for daily doses of methadone as well as a cocktail of anti-psychotic drugs including benzodiazepines, a class of tranquilizers, that are often used by addicts to heighten the effects of heroin.
She overheard Naivara talk of the money a bottle of benzodiazepines could fetch. She wondered if her daughter might still be in debt to the gangs and if keeping her home would endanger her grandchildren. Worse, Kai is plagued with doubts that recovery is even possible for Naivara.
Arguments are part of the routine. Alternating between anger and fear, Naivara begged her mother not to send her to an institution and accused her of wanting to get rid of her.
“I break down crying in despair and exhaustion at least once a day. Some days I don’t even get a chance to take a bath,” Kai said.
But Naivara is her daughter and they are bound together by a string of spirit. Like the finest spider webbing but strong as high-tempered steel, the strand binds together the bellies of mother and daughter. For Naivara and Kai, that string is stretched tight near the breaking point, but somehow that finest of filaments maintains a connection.
Look for the next installment of Living the Life next week on Indian Country Today Media Network.