Economic Boom and Violence Against Native Women

Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of sexual violence than women of other races. The perpetrators of this violence are overwhelmingly non-Native.

Native advocates are predicting a similar fallout for women in South Dakota if the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline is approved. TransCanada plans to house pipeline construction workers in three rural man-camps located close to reservations in South Dakota. Each camp will house approximately 1,000 workers. Both law enforcement officials and native and women’s rights advocates cite the emergence of these ‘man-camps’—temporary housing for transient workers—as major contributors to a rise in violence against all women wherever they are established. According to Assistant U.S. Attorney for South Dakota, Kevin Koliner, Native women comprise 40 percent of sex trafficking victims in the state.

Native-women advocates note that South Dakota is considered by some men to be a sex tourism destination. “They come in the fall for pheasant hunting season and in summer for the Sturgis Bike Rally,” says Susan Omanson, executive director of Be Free 58 Ministries, a non-profit in Sioux Falls serving survivors of sex trafficking. Sexual violence, including prostitution and trafficking, are firmly imbedded in the culture and economy of South Dakota. Revenue from pheasant hunting and the Sturgis Bike Rally represent a significant portion of income for many residents. Overall, the South Dakota Game Fish and Wildlife Agency reports that hunting pumps $66 million into the state. According to a survey conducted by the Sturgis Rally Department, the overall economic impact of the annual motorcycle rally was over $800 million in 2012.

Although most hunters and bikers in the area are well-behaved, there is a dark side to both those activities, according to U. S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, who says, “Wherever you have a large gathering of men, you have a strong opportunity for prostitution and sex trafficking.” Carmen O’Leary, executive director for the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, says that long-standing prejudice against Native people in the Dakotas contributes to a laissez-faire attitude by the public and law enforcement when it comes to pursuing perpetrators of sex crimes against Native women. Not surprisingly, she says, the safety of Native women doesn’t figure very prominently in economic development projects in the region.

Although the proposed pipeline promises a huge economic boost for the state, South Dakota is totally unprepared for the hidden social and human costs, says Faith Spotted Eagle, Ihanktunwan (Yankton) and member of the Brave Heart Society. She and other pipeline opponents point to the impact of man camps and boomtown mentality on women in the Bakken oil region of North Dakota. ABC News recently aired a story calling attention to the large increase of registered sex offenders who have relocated to the Bakken oil region. “The attitude [in the Dakotas] seems to be that the lives of a few Indian women are a small price to pay for economics,” says an advocate who asked not to be identified for fear of negative reaction from her board of directors.

Faith Spotted Eagle bemoans the sense of powerlessness expressed by communities that will be affected by the pipeline. “The average person thinks they can’t stand up to TransCanada. We have internalized this economic-predator thinking that resembles Stockholm syndrome. Since we feel powerless about corporations taking over our communities, we end up siding with these predators.”

For Spotted Eagle, women who suffer from the fallout of economies such as oil are more than unavoidable externalities. “These women have names; they are our sisters, our daughters, our mothers.”

Learn more at Mary Annette Pember’s Indian Country Today article: Will Keystone XL Pipeline Pump Sexual Violence Into South Dakota?

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