Sturgis, hunting season a hotspot for trafficking of Indigenous women

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KELO) — Human trafficking takes place every year at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Experts say it seems to only be getting worse and Indigenous girls are a common target.

Human trafficking is a major component in the Missing, Murdered Indigenous People epidemic. Experts say of girls trafficked in South Dakota, the majority of them are Indigenous. The issue increases during large events like Sturgis, hunting season and stock shows.

The West River Human Trafficking Task Force increases education efforts during Sturgis so people can know what to look out for.

“Bruises, scars, burns, cuts, scratches – I know that sounds like, oh, somebody could’ve fallen but you will know, you can tell a difference. They’re fearful, anxious, depressed. They want cash payments; they don’t have any identification on them. Some of them are very addicted to substances, different substances for substance abuse. They’re lying about their age. If you ask them where they are staying, where they live and they can’t really tell you where they’re living, you know, because they are in different locations,” Lisa Gennaro, public awareness for West River Human Trafficking Task Force said.

However, signs of trafficking can be vague.

“This is organized crime. These are the most savvy, the most narcissistic folks out there to convince you to leave your family and leave your loved ones and do this without screaming your head off. So, the handlers that they’re working with have manipulated them,” Tanya Krietlow, program manager for South Dakota Network Against Family Violence and Sexual Assualt said.

Amber High Bald Eagle was almost the victim of trafficking and is no stranger to violence against Indigenous women — having known several women who have gone missing or been murdered near Rosebud.

Last April, a friend of High Bald Eagle’s cousin asked her for a ride to Parmalee, South Dakota. Once they got to Parmalee, the friend asked her to head to Corn Creek and then to Kadoka where the woman claimed her car was.

At this point, High Bald Eagle said she was running low on gas to which the woman replied that she would pay to fill up High Bald Eagle’s car. That’s when the friend asked her to drive her to Rapid City.

High Bald Eagle was unsure, she said she had a bad feeling. But then the women offered her $300 for her troubles and so High Bald Eagle agreed.

Once they arrived in Rapid City and met up with High Bald Eagle’s cousin, the friend directed her to an apartment where High Bald Eagle asked to use the bathroom.

“So, she’s like, ‘you guys can come in and use the bathroom.’ So, I said, ‘okay,’ so we go inside this apartment, and then like, we go to the bathroom,” High Bald Eagle recalled. “And then she’s like ‘come in this room.’ So, we go into this room and there’s nothing in that room, but a mattress.”

That’s when High Bald Eagle started to question what was happening. Shortly after entering the room, she said a man entered saying she wouldn’t be allowed to leave. He then asked for her phone and belongings, but High Bald Eagle lied saying her phone was still in her car.

The man then left the room and High Bald Eagle immediately called another cousin that lived in Rapid City.

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“And I called him, and I said, ‘I might need your help… Can you be on standby?’ And he said, ‘Yeah’, he said, ‘What’s going on?’ So, I told him, and I said, I don’t know. I said, ‘I had a really bad feeling about coming up here,’” High Bald Eagle said.

That was when the man reentered the room and High Bald Eagle hung up. High Bald Eagle and her cousin then went back to the bathroom where they had noticed a small window. They crawled through and began running toward her car.

“And I called my cousin, and I went to Walmart parking lot. We parked there, and my brother came, and he helped us come back to the rez and I was like, never again,” High Bald Eagle said.

The experience was terrifying, she said, but she also felt as if she had done something wrong in agreeing to help out a friend of her cousins.

For High Bald Eagle, the experience was a lesson in being cautious about who she can trust.

“Anything can happen. Anyone can do anything to anyone,” High Bald Eagle said.

Krietlow says if something seems suspicious to you, don’t try to stop anything, just call the authorities.

“Other issues are with poverty and with trauma comes, you know, our most vulnerable victims become targets for traffickers and handlers,” Krietlow said.

Krietlow says oftentimes a victim won’t even realize what’s happening.

“They may see themselves in a relationship, whether it be familial, whether it be romantic, and that they’re just doing their part for the relationship. Baby needs shoes, you better sell some drugs. Baby needs shoes, you’re going to meet somebody in a hotel room. They may not see what they’re doing as being a victim of human trafficking,” Krietlow said.

While it’s still happening today, trafficking of Indigenous girls and women is not a new issue.

“You know, everybody knows that Sacajawea was trafficked. Her husband sold her and his baby to Lewis and Clark. But it even stems back further than that. As soon as the colonizers came, that started happening to our women because they dehumanized us,” Norma Rendon, a grandmother and advocate, said.

Rendon says women were once seen as sacred in Indigenous beliefs.

“It was a White Buffalo Calf Pipe Woman that brought us the pipe. She brought us all of our seven ceremonies at a time when we really needed all of this,” Rendon said.

But now dehumanization of women has bled into current beliefs.

“They have all these mits on our women like we can’t sit at a drum, we are not medicine people, we can’t carry a pipe. All these different things even within our own spiritual realm are portrayed and placed on us,” Rendon said.

That has led to other issues.

“We have more Indigenous women being raped than any other nationality. We have more Indigenous women being trafficked, Indigenous relatives because it’s happening more and more to our young men and our adult men. Domestic violence is prevalent among our people,” Rendon said.