Jessica Smith said she had a "really, really rough 10 years."

She grew up around domestic violence. She said she was raped at age 16. She watched as her own child endured traumatic experiences from a very young age.

At the lowest point of her life, Smith said, she found herself communicating with a man in Las Vegas, who promised her "lavish, wonderful things" if she came out west for the summer. She agreed, not realizing what she was getting herself into.

"I was severely abused because I didn't want to listen. I didn't want to go out and do the things that he wanted me to do," Smith recalled Monday. "I was held captive in a room for five days in Las Vegas heat when it was 115 degrees with no air conditioning, no phone, no nothing. My family didn't know where I was or what was happening. But by the grace of the creator, and my mother's help, I made it home."

Smith shared the brief version of her story at Monday's kickoff event for Human Trafficking Awareness Month at the Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center in Duluth.

Smith, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa who grew up on the Fond du Lac Reservation, is now researching issues related to missing and murdered indigenous women as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. She wants her story to serve as an example of how women can be rescued from the grip of human trafficking.

"I overcame and survived a lot of things that are the basis of why indigenous women are so vulnerable to being sex trafficked and being taken and getting murdered," Smith said. "A lot of the vulnerabilities come from these traumas."

National Human Trafficking Awareness Day is observed annually on Jan. 11. But, in recent years, the entire month has become a time of reflection and action for officials and activists in Northeastern Minnesota.

Mayor Emily Larson speaks at Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center Monday to kick off Trafficking Awareness Month. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Mayor Emily Larson speaks at Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center Monday to kick off Trafficking Awareness Month. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

State Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, said statistics show that four out of five Native American women and girls will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. And Minnesota is one of the top locations in the U.S. for sex trafficking, said Kunesh-Podein, who co-chairs the state's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force.

"While the Twin Cities might be a hub for this kind of child sex trafficking, it is not exclusive to the urban core," she said. "Anyone who lives in these harbor communities, who lives on the borders of our states, who lives anywhere in Minnesota knows that it is not exclusive just to the Twin Cities. And that is why we are working so hard to look at it as a statewide issue."

Kunesh-Podein said traffickers target "our most vulnerable population." One national study suggested that the single biggest factor for teens who are sexually exploited is being homeless for more than 30 days, she said.

"These children get involved in sex trafficking as a form of survival," Kunesh-Podein said. "Those are the facts that add to and explain the historic trauma of our missing and murdered indigenous communities."

Sexual assault advocate for Fond du Lac Human Services Division Marcia Kitto (right) shares what the red solidarity shawls represent Monday at Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center. Teal fringe honors victims and survivors of sexual assault, purple fringe honors domestic violence victims and survivors and the red shawl honors all Native people who have survived various forms of violence. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Sexual assault advocate for Fond du Lac Human Services Division Marcia Kitto (right) shares what the red solidarity shawls represent Monday at Dr. Robert Powless Cultural Center. Teal fringe honors victims and survivors of sexual assault, purple fringe honors domestic violence victims and survivors and the red shawl honors all Native people who have survived various forms of violence. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Roger Smith, a Fond du Lac council member who spent two decades in local law enforcement, helped establish the Tribes United Against Sex Trafficking Task Force, an initiative based out of the Fond du Lac Tribal Police Department that unites the state's 11 tribes in the fight against trafficking.

More recently, Smith was at the White House when President Donald Trump signed an executive order Nov. 26 establishing a national task force to address the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women.

"A comment was made there that this should've been done decades ago," Smith recalled. "But as I thought about it more, it should've been done centuries ago. Because for over 500 years our missing and murdered indigenous people have endured this sacrifice and pain and suffering."

Rene Ann Goodrich, an advocate for the Native Lives Matter Coalition, said a fifth annual memorial march for missing and murdered indigenous women will be held in Duluth on Feb. 14. While the movement has its roots in Canada about 30 years ago, Goodrich said significant traction has been gained in recent years, particularly due to the powerful stories of victims and their families who have chosen to stand up and speak out.

"Families are at the front line and families are the foundation for the missing and murdered indigenous women's movement," Goodrich said. "Families are making long-standing changes in legislation. Families are promoting a movement that is transformative and healing."