Indian Country Today: Girls and Women in Duluth Sexually Exploited for Generations

Earlier this month Indian Country Today, a national daily newspaper, featured an historical analysis of the sexual exploitation of Native American girls and women. The story, and the pattern, is chilling enough as it is, but the story is framed in and around Duluth, making it all the more compelling. This is an excellent piece of advocacy journalism by Mary Annette Pember.

Here’s an excerpt that puts a very human face on the problem.

Mary, Ojibwe, is a grandmotherly figure wearing a shapeless, colorful flowered dress. She meets me at the door of her little house and escorts me into her sun-drenched living room. Pleasantly cluttered with photographs, the room is not unlike those of many of my relatives. We sit down to chat, and I make a mental note that she seems an unlikely figure to tell such a powerful story of going from boat whore to survivor to activist. I feel at home here in her cozy house that overlooks the bright, clear waters of Gichigami (Lake Superior) and find it vaguely disturbing that she seems so familiar. I see that, like me, she is a sister, an Anishinaabe-ikwe and a survivor.

Mary, now 51, tells me that like her mother, she worked the boats and was trafficked into prostitution. Mary says she and her 21 siblings were all conceived through her mother’s liaisons with seamen, but her entry into “the life” was an accident. At the age of 15, she was broke and homeless, standing on the street with a girlfriend in Duluth when a Pakistani man approached them. “He was nice to us, telling us about his country. He invited us on board his boat and hailed a taxi. That was the first time I had ever ridden in a taxi,” she recalls.

Thus began her life on the boats

Sure this is difficult to read, and it’s heartbreaking, but I’m hoping that if we talk enough about the problem, admit that it is real and engage the many possible solutions that wise people are putting forward, then something will eventually change. We need to stop ignoring that this happens, blaming the victims, and/or insisting that the sex trade is a “victimless” crime.


Shane Bauer

about 12 years ago

Thanks for this reminder wildgoose. It seems to pop up in the media every once in awhile and then disappear again, just like those involved.

The link at the bottom is also an interesting Duluth-related read where you can visualize the whole exchange, as there are only so many adult book stores here.


about 12 years ago

Great post wildgoose! Unfortunately, your editorializing is where the 'great' part ends. Similar to your confused understanding of marijuana in the US (you seemed to think it comes from Mexico last we spoke), "We need to stop ignoring that this happens, blaming the victims, and/or insisting that the sex trade is a "victimless" crime."

Does anyone really say that human trafficking and enslavement is a victimless crime?  What would be a more victimless solution is to properly regulate prostitution and get it out of the dark, out of the black market, and out of the control of criminals. No, that's not going to solve the problem of kidnapping and enslavement -- but to bring that up, you are mixing very different topics.


about 12 years ago

Let's leave the drug trade out of this one although I am happy to revisit that issue in another thread.

I am allowed to editorialize, this is a blog.  I work with Native American young children.  It bothers me, very much to think that many of the girls and boys that I see in my day-to-day work will likely be targets for abuse if we do not break this cycle.  So yeah, it's personal.

Finally, yes, people do believe that human trafficking and enslavement is a victimless crime.  If you read the article I believe that is stated by a number of sources in the piece.  Although, like you, people may not consider sex workers or the "boat whores" (to use a term from the article) to be victims of human trafficking, they just consider it to be some sort of unfortunate career choice, I guess.  

I'm all for permanent and practical solutions to the problem of human trafficking although I don't think that legalization is one of them.   More likely the solution is to address the demand-side of the equation with stiffer fines and enforcement of the men who are paying for the "sex."  In the case of the shipping economy the companies themselves could create and enforce ethics policies with zero tolerance for engaging in the sex trade while under contract or on company business.  Perhaps most importantly of all, men need to step forward and step up and tell their friends and relations that engaging in prostitution is not OK.  Social and economic pressure is going to do more to resolve the issue than legal pressure ever will.


about 12 years ago

"More likely the solution is to address the demand-side of the equation with stiffer fines and enforcement of the men who are paying for the 'sex.'"

Haven't law enforcement officials and politicians been trying that for decades? How much progress has been made on that? It's quite similar to the "War on Drugs" -- we can spend billions trying to enforce the problem, but all you're going to do is spend money and do virtually nothing to end the problem.

I'm not saying legalization is necessarily the answer, but you have to do something other than sit there with the pipe dream that extra enforcement is going to simply solve a problem that has existed in society for thousands of years.


about 12 years ago

Even if legalized, there are still power dynamics with respect to gender and class, and often race, that would result in exploitation.  Those power dynamics, and the sick sense of entitlement that some men seem to have, need to be dealt with.

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