Indigenous sex trafficking survivor: 'It broke my spirit'

Jessica Gidagaakoons Smith was 24 years old when her trafficker found her online.

"I, at the time, was talking with a man on Facebook. We had conversations, and you know in my eyes, I thought we were building a relationship. This happened – what we call grooming – for about six months," said Smith, who is a tribal member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and current resident of Cloquet.

The survivor of sex trafficking told the FOX 9 Investigators she was emotionally vulnerable at the time. Her father had just died, and she was drinking a lot when her trafficker convinced her to travel to Las Vegas under false promises about modeling.

"That time of my life completely broke me. It broke my spirit. It broke everything inside of me," Smith said. "Even though I didn’t want him to control me, he did have control over me."

Smith said for four months, and often under the influence of alcohol, she was forced to work the Las Vegas Strip.

"I got held in a room for five days, and this is in the Las Vegas heat, so it's 115 degrees outside, no air conditioning in that room. I had my phone and everything taken away, so I didn't have any contact with family," Smith said. "In that time period, I was starved, I was severely beaten, I had my head smashed up a wall so many times, I literally could not open my mouth. When I look back on it now, I realize that that is when my voice was silenced, because I literally could not open my mouth."

In Minnesota, sex trafficking disproportionately affects Native Americans. According to the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force report, 173 sex trafficking incidents were reported in 2017. Roughly 20% of the victims were Native American, even though the group makes up only 1% of the state population.

"Sex trafficking has been a huge problem," said Nicole Matthews, who is executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition.

The coalition commissioned the Garden of Truth Report, which included testimony from more than 100 indigenous trafficking survivors.

"One of the women told a story about a sex buyer who said to her, ‘I thought we killed all of you,’" Matthews said. "We learned a lot from that report about the connection to missing and murdered, the risk factors, and the exploitation of our people."

As for Smith, she considers herself lucky she managed to escape her trafficker. She never reported it to law enforcement.

"The justice system is not safe for trafficking survivors," Smith said. "So very few of them seek justice because of the fear of them being retaliated against or re-traumatized by having to testify and things like that. So it's very rare that people actually report trafficking."

She said her mistrust boils down to "fear and probably a little bit of shame."

Victim Legal Protections

Depending on what state you live in, there’s also an added risk of criminal prosecution.

For example, in Minnesota the Safe Harbor law does provide legal immunity to trafficking victims who are 24 years old and younger, protecting them from being criminally charged with prostitution. However, neighboring states, including North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa, have no such protections, according to a report conducted by Shared Hope International.

In Minnesota, advocates want to expand the Safe Harbor law even further.

"They need to extend the trafficking Safe Harbor laws to protect people that are older too because it doesn’t only happen to children," Smith said.

The MMIW task force report, which was released two years ago, also recommends extending the Safe Harbor law to include trafficking survivors of all ages. That legislative change is up to lawmakers, but so far, there have been no successful efforts to do so.

Smith now works as a legal and cultural advocate, providing support to victims with similar experiences and lending her voice to those who’ve been silenced.

"The families that have missing or murdered loved ones don’t have good cultural legal representation, and oftentimes the court systems are very re-traumatizing in themselves," Smith said. "It's crucial for people to know that this is actually really happening…so if that means that I have to rehash my own trauma every single day in order to save one person, I will do that."