Human trafficking is present in all communities, including tribal communities. While it’s impossible to tell how many people are trafficked because of the hidden nature of the crime, it’s a problem that tribes confront. According to the United States Department of Justice, “[m]any have pointed to the overrepresentation of Native women in prostitution and the risk factors for trafficking that Native women and youth face, including prior sexual victimization, poverty, and homelessness, as indicators the problem is significant.” Likewise, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that 27 of 132 tribal law enforcement agencies “reported initiating investigations that they considered to have involved human trafficking” between 2014 and 2016.
American Indians and Alaska Natives are more than twice as likely to be victims of a violent crime, and Native American women are at least two times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted compared to other races, according to the Association on American Indian Affairs.
Among the diverse populations affected by human trafficking, indigenous peoples worldwide are at particular risk for both sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Human Trafficking is an insidious threat that has proven difficult to track and quantify, and exceedingly hard to dismantle.
The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA 2013) included a historic provision that recognized the inherent authority of “participating Tribes” to exercise “special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction” (SDVCJ) over certain defendants, regardless of their Indian or non-Indian status, who commit acts of domestic violence or dating violence or violate certain protection orders in Indian country. This provision enabled Tribes to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian offenders for the first time since the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which held that, absent express Congressional authorization, Tribes lack jurisdiction over all crimes committed by non-Indians. The Act also specified the rights that a participating Tribe must provide to defendants in SDVCJ cases.
Another step to combat human trafficking and sex crimes in tribal communities was taken in 2021. On November 15th 2021, Biden signed an executive order tasking the Justice, Homeland Security and Interior departments with pursuing strategies to reduce crime in tribal communities.
“We have to continue to stand up for the dignity and sovereignty of tribal nations,” Biden said at the first tribal nations summit since 2016. The two-day summit was being held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has affected Indigenous peoples at disproportionate rates.”
In 2022, Congress amended The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA 2013) to recognize “special Tribal criminal jurisdiction” (STCJ) over an expanded list of “covered crimes” that includes, in addition to the VAWA 2013 crimes, assault of Tribal justice personnel, child violence, obstruction of justice, sexual violence, sex trafficking, and stalking. This expanded recognition of Tribal sovereignty was enacted by the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2022 (VAWA 2022), signed into law by President Biden on March 15, 2022. VAWA 2022’s STCJ provisions took effect on October 1, 2022.
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