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Conference Finds Links Between Human Trafficking, MMIW

Sticky notes list risk factors for sex trafficking
Olivia Reingold
Yellowstone Public Radio
Participants at the Flathead Tribes' missing and murdered indigenous peoples conference list risk factors for sex trafficking.

On Tuesday the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes kicked off a missing and murdered indigenous peoples conference to raise awareness about the work being done to understand the scope of the issue both on the reservation and in the state. Yellowstone Public Radio News’ Olivia Reingold is covering the conference and shared her reporting with Nicky Ouellet.

Nicky Ouellet: Olivia, this is the second missing and murdered indigenous peoples conference the Flathead Tribes have held since passing a resolution back in January. What was that resolution about and how does this conference fit into that?

Olivia Reingold: Well the resolution that the tribes passed back in January does a few different things. First it established a work group to address the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people, but it also required the tribe to promote education and awareness about sexual assault, runaways and drug use and how that relates to missing and murdered indigenous people. Its main goal of the resolution is to really develop an action plan, which is part of what this conference is working towards.

NO: Who's all participating in this three day conference?

OR: So about 50 people showed up today and there were all sorts of different people there. There was tribal law enforcement, social workers, nurses, members of the faith community but all in all people wanted to know how they could help identify people who might be the victims of sex trafficking. And that's why one woman I spoke with, Johnnie Sloan, a bus driver for the Ronan School District, came today. She said she was there to learn how to help students.

“The populations that I work with and the people that I see, I want to know how to identify, because I know that I have at risk kids on my bus,” Sloan says.

NO: What other concerns did you hear from people, specifically about sex trafficking?

OR: Well during this one exercise, everyone wrote down risk factors they thought were present in their community for people who might be vulnerable to sex trafficking. I spoke with Lisa Shourds, who's an administrative manager for the tribes' legal office, and I asked her what she wrote down. She said she sees people connect more on social media than in person nowadays.

“The first thing I came up with was lack of sense of community,” Shourds said. “We use to have a sense of community as a tribal culture and we kind of are getting away from that. We’re getting more into individuality and so we really aren't having any gatherings like we use to, to support each other."

NO: Aside from not having a physical sense of community, what were some of the other risk factors that were identified?

OR: Most of the training today was run by a woman named Jeri Moomaw, who is a former survivor of sex trafficking and she travels the country doing education about sex trafficking and how to prevent it. She listed a handful of risk factors, from being in foster care to growing up around substance abuse. But she said that Native American women are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking because of risk factors like this.

“Well when you look at kind of vulnerabilities and human traffickers really target individuals with vulnerabilities and individuals that don't have stable support systems," Moomaw. "That could be somebody that is in the foster care system somebody ho has childhood sexual abuse at home, there could be substance abuse in their home.”

NO: You mentioned that tourism in the Flathead, which is one of the biggest economic drivers of that region, but actually tourism can put people at risk. How's that?

OR: Yeah, so tourism is a big industry in the Flathead Valley and I spoke with Jami Pluff, who is the tribes' policy analyst, and she said that she's concerned about all the people who move through the reservation.

“That's what we worry about because our reservation, on each end, there's a truck stop in Kalispell and there is a truck stop in Missoula. So it is worrisome, I mean I worry about the young girls that when I'm driving from here to Polson and I see a young girl walking along the road it's really scary,” says Pluff.

NO: So what's on the schedule for Thursday?

OR: So Thursday we'll focus on working towards an action plan and response to missing and murdered indigenous people. We'll hear from the tribes' work group and families of missing and murdered indigenous women, then in the afternoon people will start to focus on building the policy in response to everything they have learned so far.

NO: Olivia thanks for sharing your reporting.

OR: Thank you.