Indigenous, Native American/Alaskan Native Youth & CSEC

alaska native youth mentoring
Stop Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

“This project was supported by Grant #2017-MC-FX-K051 awarded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.” 

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Indigenous and Native American/Alaskan Native youth come from Nations that are rich with culture, tradition, and spirituality. Practicing cultural humility and increasing our own knowledge allows us to recognize and reinforce the strength and culture of Native and Indigenous peoples and their communities.  In practicing cultural humility, we can better support Indigenous youth, and move in allyship against the social and historical challenges that Indigenous peoples face everyday. It is important to remember the goal is not “saving” Indigenous youth, it is moving in allyship; trusting and supporting their lead on the most effective and appropriate services.




First things first, what's in a name? 


In the U.S, there are 574 federally recognized tribes   with hundreds more state recognized and/or seeking federal recognition. This includes the contiguous United States and Alaska. There has long been discussions, even among Native populations of which terms to use to use for identification. For example, Identities such as, Native American, American Indian, Indigenous, Aborginal, Tribal and First Nations, are all labels that some consider unifying under the enduring experience of occupation and colonization. 

Some find these terms to be an erasure of the unique identities of Indigenous Peoples: that sustain a very large, diverse, and rich culture of languages and traditions.  To add, it is important to not speak of Indigenous and Native Peoples in the past tense, as Indigenous Peoples and cultures are very much thriving in the present.  Elders can also support youth in carrying this rich culture forward in the future.



  • Each one of these terms carry different connotations, history, and each generation differently. According to a study by Michael Yellow Bird (1999), most individuals surveyed preferred to use their Tribal identity. This communicates much more about their identity than a generalized and colonized label. 
  • Labels should promote solidarity among Indigenous Peoples while at the same time recognizing the diversity and sovereignty of each group.  Ultimately, what matters while doing this work is operating with dignified curiosity and cultural humility, respecting individuals’ preferential identities by asking them respectfully and honoring what they would like to be identified as. When working with Indigenous peoples, best practice is to follow their lead and ask how they would like to be referred to and identified as. 
  • In this module the terms, “Native” or “Indigenous”, will be used interchangeably, reflecting Native populations in the United States while, at the same time, acknowledging these terms as a generalization that do not properly capture the diversity and beauty of the many Tribes across the US territory.

Two Spirit Peoples:


  • The term “Two Spirit” originated in the 1990 North American Native Gay & Lesbian Gathering in Manitoba. As it was introduced, a red tailed hawk hovered above, symbolizing a positive spiritual message.  The term Two Spirit affirms and revives pre-colonial Indigenous gender diversity and its interconnection with spirituality and tradition. 
  • Well before colonization, Nations, Tribes and Indigenous cultures revered Two Spirit people. Most Indigenous Tribes have their own names for “Two Spirit” people, often highlighting Two Spirit people as third and fourth gendered beings. Ones which take on roles from all parts of life. From fighting in combat, to caring for and naming children, Two Spirit people held important roles within the community.
  • It is important to note that identifying as Two Spirit is not necessarily a sexual orientation, but can be best understood as a gender identity. However, it is not uncommon for an LGBTQ identified Indigenous person to also identify as Two Spirit, as they often overlap. In some cases, Indigenous people may choose to identify with heir languages’ term for Two Spirit people.  Ultimately, service providers should avoid making assumptions and truly listen to how the young person defines themselves.

So What?


  • To best serve Native youth, agencies, programs, and mentors first need to understand the hardships associated with historical trauma. Native populations face interconnecting social problems that reduce youths’ opportunities to thrive and succeed in life.1
    • First used by social worker and mental health expert Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart in the 1980s, scholarship surrounding “historical trauma“, has expanded to fields outside of the Lakota communities Yellow Horse Brave Heart studied.4 Yellow Horse Brave Heart's scholarship focused on the ways in which the psychological and emotional traumas of colonization, relocation, assimilation, and American Indian boarding schools have manifested within generations of the Lakota population. 
  • Though historical (or intergenerational) trauma and oppression are often used interchangeably, it is important to note the different meanings:
    • Historical trauma is multigenerational trauma or colonial abuse, refers to specific traumatic events across time that have left native people with immense losses with no time to collectively reflect and heal, thus the trauma is passed from generation to generation.3,6,7
    • Historical oppression describes the chronic, pervasive, and intergenerational experiences of oppression that, over time, may be normalized, imposed, and internalized into the daily lives of many Indigenous/Native peoples.6,8
  • There are generational consequences associated with historical trauma and oppression.



  • More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native adults (83 percent) have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. That's almost 3 million people who have experienced psychological aggression or physical violence by intimate partners, stalking, or sexual violence.23   
  • Although victimized at similar rates and with similar levels of psychological aggression and physical violence by intimate partners, women have experienced significantly higher levels of sexual violence (56.1 percent versus 27.5 percent for men) and stalking (48.8 percent versus 18.6 percent for men).
  • 4 out of 5 of Native women are affected by violence today. To add, 60% of Indigenous women who experienced interpersonal violence had lost a parent by the age of eighteen.
  • Additionally, Native women experience higher lifetime prevalence (45.3%) of rape, physical violence, and stalking by intimate partners than any other race5 in addition to facing murder rates more than 10 times the national average.24  
  • It is important to note that all of these statistics are underrepresented as to the realities of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two Spirit peoples
    • There is a lack of sufficient data reporting the number of missing, murdered, Indigenous women. In many police departments in fact, Indigenous women and girls and Two Spirit people go misclassified under stereotypes based off of erasure and presumed ethnicity and are not reported as Indigenous or Native.



  • Loss of culture, language, and spiritual practices is extensive for Indigenous peoples due to genocide, relocations, and forced assimilation through boarding schools.6,7,9,10,11 
  • The US government implemented boarding schools in order to separate Native children from their families and culture.  This was done through teaching English, colonial values, and forced cultural assimilation. The Indian Boarding School era has been described as an "ideological and psychological" war "waged against children".27
  • Family separation, cultural erasure, and genocide of Indigenous peoples all have repercussions that are felt to this day.
  • Educating Native American children has changed dramatically over the past 400 years. When Indigenous Americans were in charge of teaching their children, they did so by playing games, telling stories, practicing hunting, as well as teaching other skills the children would need to survive. That would change as Europeans came to control this continent. The traditional European-style education emphasized structured classroom learning and rote memorization -- a stark contrast from the native style of hands-on learning, which took place mostly outdoors.28



  • Children experienced spiritual, physical, and sexual abuse while in boarding schools.10,11,13
  • Internalization of oppressor’s beliefs, erosion of traditional values and roles, and violence amplifies vulnerability and risk factors in Native communities3,7,13 in addition to sexism and racism.3,10,11
  • American Indians, Native Americans, First Nation people, or Indigenous peoples often experience hopelessness caused by trauma and oppression, leading to issues of higher rates of poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol use, human trafficking, health problems, violence and crime, and discrimination and exclusion.3,6,13
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control, Indigenous peoples have the highest rate of drug-induced death (17.1%) in the US 4. In addition, many barriers to treatment exist for Indigenous peoples, including: lack of transportation, lack of health insurance, poverty, and a shortage of culturally appropriate treatment options in their communities.
  • The suicide rate for Indigenous peoples is 1.5 times higher than the national average and is the second leading cause of death for those ages 10-43.  Additionally, studies found Two-Spirit Native youth attempt suicide two to three times as often as heterosexual Native youths.25 Due to a lack of accurate reporting, many additional deaths recorded as accidental are also thought to be due to suicide.26

Human Trafficking


  • Ultimately the historical oppression of Native people, and of Native women in particular, is the driving force behind their experience in trafficking.3,10 
  • Native women and girls are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and human trafficking at disproportionate rates.13 Human trafficking is exploitation of a vulnerability.
  • Over time, intergenerational trauma has occurred. Sexual exploitation and violence have become integrated into Native women’s lives as to be expected.
  • According to Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, human sex trafficking has been in Tribal communities since pre-colonization 500 plus years ago. Colonization has left an upsetting image on Indigenous bodies through assimilation and ongoing laws that target Native women and children. For example,  Disney movie Pocahontas depicts a Native woman falling in love and saving John Smith from her father and later in the story she falls in love with John Rolfe. Of course, the way Disney depicts this story in a beautiful way, where Pocahontas wanted to experience conquest. 
    • Pocahontas was only 11 years old when she met Smith and was later sexually assaulted and trafficked. According to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, traffickers are consistent with many of the tactics used by colonial and American Governments to subjugate Native people. This power and control is so deeply ingrained in American history that is often rendered invisible and thus becomes normalized.
  • Tribal Courts are left with few options to prosecute for sex trafficking and other crimes. For major crimes (Major Crimes Act) like sexual abuse or trafficking, their power is limited (Indian Civil Rights Act) to prosecuting a crime to a max of 3 years or $5000 (Tribal Law & Order Act). The Federal government has the power to prosecute these crimes to the fullest extent, however most cases are not pursued. The Violence Against Women Act of 2013 did give jurisdiction to Tribal courts to prosecute non-natives (3 year max sentencing) for domestic violence and dating violence. 

Now What?

General Practice Implications for Individuals


  • Prioritize trauma-informed and healing-centered practices and responses in your work, helping individuals regain power and control over their life.
  • Specific to human trafficking, many survivors credit reconnection to cultural identity, community, and spiritual practices as a way they survived or escaped their situations of exploitation.10 
  • Do not expect to be educated about an Indigenous culture or peoples that you are not familiar with. Do not expect the youth or young adult to be your guide. Prepare to do some research to familiarize yourself so you can better assist them.

General Practice Implications for Service Providers


  • There is a great need to acknowledge the impact of historical trauma and oppression in the lives of Indigenous youth and families.
  • Service providers should be able to identify, be flexible, and responsive to cultural, emotional, physical, and geographical needs.
  • Facilitate healing in programs by focusing on resilience and post-traumatic growth. Shift perspective from a deficit model (focusing on weaknesses and risks) to a strengths model to change the narrative to focus on resilience.7,9,15,16
  • Ensure that services provided are trauma-informed and empowerment-based (helping individuals regain power and control over their life). Consider adopting a “survivor-led approach” in programming.
  • Some of the disparities in treatment that occur within the Native American population can be resolved through increased availability of culturally sensitive treatment programs. Local adaptations of treatment protocols are needed to address the significant diversity among Native Americans, as there are important differences in the language, culture, and customs of the 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and communities.
  • Studies have shown that cultural identity and spirituality are important issues for Native Americans seeking services, and individuals may experience better outcomes when traditional healing approaches (such as powwows, drum circles, and sweat lodges) are incorporated into treatment programs.7,28
  • Remember to provide a culturally sensitive client intake process. Ask where the client is from, what are their preferred identities and pronouns? How do they identify ethnically and culturally? These questions are key to providing a holistic intake that fully engages the youth. 
  • Partner with local Native communities to engage in shared learning, cross-training, and consultation.
  • Provide information and learning opportunities for families on risk, protective, and resiliency factors associated with CSEC/trafficking.

General Practice Implications for Communities


  • Do not expect to be educated about an Indigenous culture or peoples that you are not familiar with. Do not expect the youth or young adult to be your guide. Prepare to do some research to familiarize yourself so you can better assist them.
  • Connect with Indigenous local organizations, building consistent and authentic relationships. This may foster opportunities for meaningful partnership.
  • Invite larger Indigenous community leaders to your organization to see what programs you offer for youth in the community. Listen and be open to implementing their feedback. Engage Indigenous youth in leadership roles and pay them for their input. Keep in mind travel costs and other logistics when utilizing their expertise.
  • At times, Native youth may become involved with law enforcement and there is often a disconnect between the Tribal government response and larger carceral government responses. Know who to contact for legal information and support.

Mentoring Practice Implications 


  • Provide opportunities for youth to participate in cultural activities and events. Native groups’ culture was eroded over time and research shows that enculturation can be a key to healing.6,9,28
  • Promote and build healthy and permanent social connections with family, and ask youth if/how they want parents or other elders to be involved in the mentorship process and relationship. One of the most promising protective factors related to violence against indigenous women is families.7
  • Develop a trauma-informed “lens” and prioritize trauma-informed/healing-centered responses in daily interactions.
  • Provide training and skill-building opportunities to mentors. Including cultural humility and awareness, trauma-informed/healing centered practices, strengths-based approach, and facilitating survivor leadership/empowerment-based programming.
  • Ask Indigenous youth if they would like to be paired with an Indigenous person specific to their identities as their mentor. It is always important to ask youth and their family’s preference with regard to mentors’ race/ethnicity when making matches, regardless of mentor and youth race/ethnicity.17  
  • Be open to bringing in Indigenous elders that can assist with spiritually sensitive advice, if the Indigenous youth would like. Be sure to get consent. Be open to the fact that you will not have all the answers. The goal is to practice authentic engagement with the youth’s community.

Resilience in Culture


While there has been deliberate, significant fracturing of Indigenous and Native cultures, targeting their relationship to land, language, ceremony, and more; there are still Elders and young Indigenous people alike, that carry on their traditions with pride. From recording and documenting Indigenous languages for future generations, to maintaining and implementing traditional practices from one's Tribe or nation into everyday life, Indigenous people will never be erased. The resilience of Indigenous peoples lives on in their every breath, foods, ceremonies and determination to continue on.  Resilience is not only embedded throughout Native and Indigenous culture, it is the culture. Remember whose land you're on. If you don't know, look this up. It is not enough to say you are on Native Land. Whose land are you on specifically?  It could be the youth sitting across from you.





  1. Aschenbrener, C., Johnson, S., & Schulz, M. (2017). A new mentorship model: The perceptions of educational futures for Native American youth at a rural tribal school. Journal of Child & Adolescent Behavior, 5(4), 1-8. doi: 10.4172/2375-4494.1000348.
  2. American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010, 2010 Census Briefs, January, 2012 By Tina Norris, Paula L. Vines, and Elizabeth M. Hoeffel,
  3. Pierce, A.S. (2009). Shattered hearts: The commercial sexual exploitation of American Indian women and girls in Minnesota. The Minnesota American Indian Women’s Resource Center.
  4. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2015). Suicide: Facts at a Glance. Retrieved from
  5. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2010). National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report.  Retrieved from
  6. Burnette, C. (2018). Family and cultural protective factors as the bedrock of resilience and growth for Indigenous women who have experienced violence. Journal of Family Social Work, 21(1), 45-62. doi: 10.1080/10522158.2017.1402532
  7. Burnette, C., & Figley, C. (2016). Historical oppression, resilience, and transcendence: Can a holistic framework help explain violence experience by Indigenous people? Social Work, 62(1), 37-44. doi: 10.1093/sw/sww065
  8. Burnette, C., (2015). Disentangling Indigenous women’s experiences with intimate partner violence in the United States. Critical Social Work, 16(1), 1-20. Retrieved from Disentangling Indigenous Women's Experiences with Intimate Partner Violence in the United_States
  9. Grayshield, L., Rutherford, J., Salazar, S., Mihecoby, A., & Luna, L. (2015). Understanding and healing historical trauma: The perspectives of Native American elders. Journal of Mental Health, 37(4), 295-307. doi: 10.17744/mehc.37.4.02
  10. Farley, M., Deer, S., Golding, J., Matthews N., Lopez, G., Stark, C., & Hudon, E. (2016). The prostitution and trafficking of American Indian/Alaska Native women in Minnesota.  American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research, 23(1), 65-104.  doi: 10.5820/aian.2301.2016.65.
  11. Bourgeois, R. (2015). Colonial exploitation: The Canadian state and the trafficking of Indigenous women and girls in Canada. UCLA Law Review, 62, 1426-1463.
  12. Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th ed.). New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 
  13. Johnson, A. (2012). A perfect storm: The U.S. anti-trafficking regime’s failure to stop the sex trafficking of American Indian women and girls. Columbia Human Rights Law Review, 43(2), 617-710. 
  14. Anderson, K. (2018). Post-traumatic growth and resilience despite experiencing trauma and oppression. Journal of Family Social Work, 21(1), 1-4.  doi:  10.1080/10522158.2017.1402540
  15. Countryman-Roswurm, K. & DiLollo, A. (2017). Survivor: A narrative therapy approach for use with sex trafficked women and girls. Women & Therapy, 40(1-2), 55-72.
  16. Teuful-Shone, N., Tippens, J., McCrary, H., Ehiri, J., & Sanderson, P. (2018). Resilience in American Indian and Alaska Native public health: An underexplored framework.  American Journal of Health Promotion, 32(2), 274-281. doi: 10.1177/0890117116664708
  17. Sanchez, B., Colon-Torres, Y., Feuer, R., Roundfield, K.E., & Berardi, L. (2005). Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Mentoring Relationships. Handbook of Youth Mentoring.
  18. Owens, J.  (2012).  Historic in a bad way: How the tribal law and order act continues the American tradition of providing inadequate protection to American Indian and Alaska native rape victims. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 102(2), 497-524.
  19. Pierce, A.S. (2012). American Indian adolescent girls: Vulnerability to sex trafficking, intervention strategies. American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research.
  20. U.S. Census Bureau. (2010). Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010. Retrieved from
  21. Lucchesi, A. (Southern Cheyenne), Echo-Hawk, A. (Pawnee). (2016). Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Report. Urban Indian Health Institute. Retrieved from
  22. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart. (2000). Wakiksuyapi: Carrying the historical trauma of the Lakota. Tulane Studies in Social Welfare. Retrieved from
  23. National Institute of Justice, "Five Things About Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men," November 30, 2016,
  24. The Major Crimes Act
  25. King, M., Semlyen, J., See Tai, S., Killaspy, H., Osborn, D., Popelyuk, D, et al. (2008). A systematic review of mental disorder, suicide, and deliberate self harm in lesbian, gay and bisexual people. BMC Psychiatry, 8, 70. Retrieved from: A Systemic Review
  26. First Nations Centre (2012). Suicide prevention and two-spirited people. Ottawa: National Aboriginal Health Organization. Retrieved from Suicide Prevention
  27. Haag, A.M. (2007). The Indian Boarding School Era and its Continuing Impact on Tribal Families and the Provision of Government Services, 43 Tulsa Law Review 149 (Fall 2007)
  28. Ivanich, J.D., Mousseau, A.C., Walls, M. et al. Pathways of Adaptation: Two Case Studies with One Evidence-Based Substance Use Prevention Program Tailored for Indigenous Youth. Prev Sci 21, 43–53 (2020).

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