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Human Trafficking Crisis In Indian Country 'Like A Pandemic'

Molina Richards promised her friend that she wouldn't let anyone forget her daughter, Waniyetu Rose Loves War, who died in 2019.
Kirk Siegler
Molina Richards promised her friend that she wouldn't let anyone forget her daughter, Waniyetu Rose Loves War, who died in 2019.

In the summer of 2019, Molina Richards got a call that made her stomach sink. One of her best friend's teenage daughters had gone missing on the Rosebud Reservation.

It took police several days to organize a formal search party because they kept getting tips that she had been seen in various parts of the vast, 1,900-square-mile reservation in one of the most isolated parts of the lower 48 states.

"All the leads, they didn't find her," Richards said, choking back tears as she recalled the trauma of that July day.

Richards ended up part of a six-person search team on ATVs. They finally found Waniyetu Rose Loves War whose English name was Autumn. She was dead at 19.

But Richards had already feared the worst.

"It's always in the back of your mind, growing up here," she said.

Nobody knows how many indigenous people go missing or are murdered every year. There's just not a lot of comprehensive data. But on long neglected reservations such as Rosebud, tribal members are convinced the crisis is worsening everyday.

Tribal governments are renewing pressure on federal and state authorities to devote more resources to the crisis, and there are signs that's starting to happen.

"With Waniyetu's situation, I promised my friend I would never let anybody forget her name," Richards said.

"Like a pandemic"

To that end, Richards wrote and recently won a grant from CARES Act funds available to tribes to open a shelter for women and homeless teens on the reservation. The first of its kind safehouse will be staffed around the clock. It will also be a badly needed refuge for people who are otherwise walking out in the cold all night, organizers said, moving from boarded up gang-run houses, to drug parties, their feet swollen, or far worse.

"At house parties, I saw the disturbing side of the reservation, how bad things can get, how addiction takes over people's lives, people sell their own kids, sell themselves," said Colin Whirlwind Soldier, project manager for the new shelter.

Tribal members say prostitution, drug trafficking and domestic violence are rampant on the Rosebud, where unemployment is high and communities have some of the lowest life expectancy rates in the nation.

"I label it like a pandemic," Richards said. "It's everywhere, the murders have touched everybody here. It happens too much."

Connecting the dots

That same alarm was sounded in the South Dakota legislature this week by State Rep. Peri Pourier, a Democrat who represents the Pine Ridge Reservation to the west of Rosebud. She convinced her Republican colleagues to overwhelmingly pass a bill that, if signed by Gov. Kristi Noem, would create a full-time missing indigenous persons specialist in the state Attorney General's office.

Pourier said too many crimes are going unsolved and perpetrators are taking advantage of the gaps between multiple jurisdictions.

"Sometimes the dots aren't connected that this is a human trafficking issue," Pourier said. "But the most vulnerable of our populations is indigenous women and children."

Of the 109 people currently listed as missing in South Dakota, 77 are believed to be indigenous. Last month alone, 19 native people went missing, according to state figures.

"We're hearing these stories, but who's investigating it? Sometimes natives don't feel comfortable reporting that type of thing to law enforcement," Pourier said.

Sharon Swift, a tribal council representative on the Rosebud Reservation, stands in front of what is set to become a new safehouse for homeless teenagers in St. Francis, S.D.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
Sharon Swift, a tribal council representative on the Rosebud Reservation, stands in front of what is set to become a new safehouse for homeless teenagers in St. Francis, S.D.

Pourier and the bill's backers hope there will soon be better data available to start connecting more of those dots. The new missing persons liaison would be tasked with coordinating with the FBI and various tribal law enforcement agencies to investigate the unsolved crimes. South Dakota tribes are also committing to help the state lobby the federal government for more resources.

State of emergency

For many, the urgency is long overdue.

On the Rosebud Reservation in the town of St. Francis, Sharon Swift, a tribal council representative, points to a row of boarded up houses where she said several women had gone missing in the past year. There have been two murders, she said, and a recent survey found more than 100 homeless teenagers in the area.

"I would consider it a state of emergency in Indian Country, not only here on the Rosebud but everywhere," Swift said.

But Swift was encouraged at how quickly plans for the new safehouse and shelter were coming together. There was even a procession as a mobile home was trucked in from the nearby town of Rosebud.

On a recent snowy morning, the temperature below zero, a utility worker was setting up the internet. Staff was getting ready to retrofit the mobile home and there were plans to build paths, a garden and a sweat lodge out back once the snow melted.

Organizers hope its planned opening later this month will be symbolic. In Lakota culture, they said, spring marks the start of the new year, a new beginning.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.