If immediate response is needed, call 911. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-7888 to speak with a specially trained Anti-Trafficking Hotline Advocate.

Honoring National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People – May 5, 2024

By Jatonya Clayborn, Program Director, Gateway Alliance against Human Trafficking

Indigenous people have long suffered the disproportionate impact of human trafficking on their tribal communities, resulting in generational trauma that has proven difficult to overcome. Early accounts of United States history reinforced a false narrative that recognized the “discovery” of America as a partnership between European settlers and Native Americans. Far less palatable, the truth revealed the collision of two worlds and the unequal power dynamics which caused America’s native inhabitants to be exploited through the ongoing application of force, fraud, and coercion. These adverse experiences compounded vulnerabilities that have allowed human trafficking to exist and even thrive among Indigenous populations.

Beginning from an early age, each morning before the start of school several children across America recite a plead of allegiance to a country that promises “liberty and justice for all.” Yet, throughout United States history, American Indians have been abused, exploited, marginalized, and forgotten. The systematic maltreatment of Indigenous people has produced long-term harmful effects that are unique to their culture.

Genocidal tactics were effectively applied to reduce Indigenous tribes and populations in great numbers. Additionally, despite previously established agreements and treaties, strategies were used to aggressively seize ownership of land and segregate tribes to isolated, non-agricultural regions, forming tribal reservations and nations that continue to exist today. Life on the reservations (most owned by the United States government) was difficult, at best. Authority figures systematically sought to strip away the rights, opportunities, and identities of Indigenous people by encouraging and enforcing simulation to European culture, both on and off the reservations.

The overlap of risk factors intensifies the vulnerabilities that can lead to exploitation through human trafficking. Disparate treatment left Native Americans stripped of their humanity and ability to thrive; increasing inequities in economic opportunities, available resources, and access to services and information. Additionally, those experiences bred a general distrust of authority among Indigenous populations. Eventually, tribes were encouraged to establish their own governments, deepening the divide between cultures.   

The impact of human trafficking among Indian American populations is largely unnoticed and rarely discussed. Human trafficking has been described as a crime that is hidden in plain sight, due to its covert nature. Trafficking is a complex criminal activity, and multiple contributing factors can make occurrences of human trafficking extremely difficult to identify and address. This can be especially true for Indigenous populations who face jurisdictional issues related to the application of law between federal, state, and tribal authority. These obstacles create confusion, hamper reporting, disaggregate data, and increase victimization while allowing perpetrators to go unpunished, free to reoffend. 

History has played a significant role in the exploitation and abuse experienced by Indigenous people. Although anyone can fall victim to human trafficking, marginalized communities are more frequently represented in this form of exploitation because they are more often overlooked by society. Vulnerable populations reflect the failures of the societies that produce them. The trauma of mistreatment experienced by indigenous people has resulted in their disproportionate rate of representation in instances of human trafficking. To address human trafficking at its core, its essential that society dismantle systems and processes of oppression that lend to marginalization and perpetuate generational trauma. Emphasis must be placed on equitable access to resources and information that improve overall quality of life and truly embraces an ideology of liberty and justice for all.

Click here to learn more about the international movement of, “Red Dress.”


(Human Trafficking (Including Sex Trafficking) of American Indians and Alaska Natives). “Cache://chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/www.justice.gov/ovw/page/file/998081/dl – Google Search.” Justice.gov, Department of Justice, Sept. 2017, chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/www.justice.gov/ovw/page/file/998081/dl. Accessed 8 Apr. 2024.

(Reaching Victims Everywhere). “2021 Report to the Nation.” Office for Victims of Crime, ovc.ojp.gov/2021-report-nation/tribal-communities#pageTitle. Accessed 10 Apr. 2024.

(Trafficking in Tribal Nations: the impact of sex trafficking on Native Americans). “Trafficking in Tribal Nations: the Impact of Sex Trafficking on Native Americans.” Human Trafficking Search, Freedom United, 22 Jan. 2018, humantraffickingsearch.org/traffickingofnativeamericans/?gad_source=1&gclid=CjwKCAjwt-OwBhBnEiwAgwzrUk-qTVJsPHY8Hth0PANI8dOZ2NqVChY5yv5I9wdDdxGZYOhLGLd0tRoCK9QQAvD_BwE. Accessed 5 Apr. 2024.

Smith Jr., Quinn. “What Are Tribal Nations and Reservations?” Welcome to Sites@Duke Express! – Sites@Duke Express, The Wellian Magazine, 1 Mar. 2021, sites.duke.edu/thewellianmag/2021/03/01/what-are-tribal-nations-and-reservations/. Accessed 2 Apr. 2024.