Throughout the early fur trade in Canada and the United States the one unspoken and (for the most part) unwritten rule was that so long as white women were absent on the frontiers, Indigenous women could be used to satisfy the carnal needs of the white men seeking to colonize the continent. To grasp the rapidity and the extent to with which Aboriginal women became sexualized as prostitutes and as persons who could be trafficked with impunity, a few passages are offered here. These are provided to show that the groundwork for the current problem with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW) is not a modern phenomenon, but rather is the modern-day continuation of a pattern of the devaluation and degradation of indigenous women from its roots in colonial history.
One passage remarked on the social ills that had developed surrounding some of the Hudson Bay trading posts during the height of the fur trade. It stated that the ‘civilizing habits’ learned at the trading posts by the Indians were mostly the bad habits of the whites, including drunkenness and prostitution. One of the most serious difficulties, the passage states, is in reforming the growing practice of Indian parents being pushed to sell their daughters, and men hiring out their wives to white men for prostitution. The white men, in turn, were taking Indian women as their concubines, not infrequently leaving their children from these women as virtual slaves.[i]
When the American Fur Company began the erection of trading posts, and buying the valuable furs of the Indian hunter and trapper, the traders would often pay the Indians in whiskey and cheap goods. As their efforts to spread their “civilization” advanced, many of the whites traders took Indian women as their concubines, living with them and using them for only as long as it suited their convenience or inclination to do so. Thus, it was reported, the traders have given the Indians their first lesson in civilization by teaching them the prostitution of their young women![ii]
In yet another passage it was stated that when the Hudson lay Company opened a trading post at Fort Simpson (British Columbia), that many of the men found jobs working for the white people. This provided them money from which they could earn a living. However, at the same time the women and girls found jobs doing tasks such as sewing, washing, and other domestic tasks, but also were enticed into more nefarious jobs in prostitution.[iii]
When a Hudson Bay post was established near a village 300 Indians at Bella Coola (British Columbia), the standard of living plummeted. While the Indians were able to supplement their losses by cultivating some crops, they were soon suffering in a much degraded condition, with many of the men living by the proceeds of the prostitution of their women to the local white traders.[iv]
In many instances the white men who took Indian women as their wives did so for less than honorable reasons. In one case, a trader named William Banks, Sr., enticed the parents of a widowed Indian woman to allow her to be his ‘country wife’. He gave her relatives some presents, and she lived in his house, cooked for him, and cohabitated with him. Subsequently, Banks offered his new “wife” as a prostitute at any such time as he chose to use her.[v]
To think that the Indians were somehow complicit, or were equal partners in the debauchery of their people and their women would be an erroneous assumption. This was certainly not the case. In a speech given at the general council of the Colville Indians, held near Kettle Falls, on August 12, 1873, Antoine, chief of the band, speaking for his people, berated the local traders by stating, “We want you to take our [word]; the liquor is coming up to our knees; we tie our people [when they are drunk], but the whites do not tie up or punish their people for selling liquor to Indians. I wish you [the local Indian agent] would take our side and stop this selling of liquor to us.” Antoine also made serious accusations against the local white men forcing Indian women who they took as “country wives” as prostitutes. Antoine noted that the bad white men do this under the guise of marriage, but that the “poor Indian woman believes she is married to a white man, [but] he treats it in the light of cohabitation only, and which he breaks off at will, often abandoning both women and children with impunity and with gross indifference.”[vi]
The human trafficking was not just confined to the fur posts on the frontier. In an 1861 article about the debaucheries occurring at mining camps in the Rocky Mountains, it was noted that dance halls at these camps were maintained as places of prostitution that were exploiting indigenous women. To quote the article, it was said: “It is a misnomer to call them [dance halls] “places of amusement “. They are sinks of iniquity and pollution; prostitution and kindred vices in all their hideous deformity, and diseases in every form Iurk there.”[vii]
When Indian women did stand up to the abuse offered upon them, they were not afforded protection from the local authorities due to their being “lesser” than whites due to their aboriginal blood. In one case, an aboriginal woman dragged the friend of a man who had raped her to a local constable station so that he could bear witness on her behalf, but he was detained only until she left the police station, at which time he was released without charges. In another case, an Indian woman who was raped by a policeman on the frontier was able to secure a jury trial for her attacker, but the verdict hinged on whether the evidence of the Indian woman and her three Indian witnesses mattered. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’.[viii]
[i] The Tsimsheans at Metlakahtla in Magazine of Western History (1891)
[ii] Portrait and biographical album of Midland County, Mich.: Containing ... sketches ... citizens ... also ... a complete history of the county, from its earliest settlement to the present time. (1884). Chicago: Chapman Brothers.
[iii] Peet, S.D., Kinnaman, J.O. (1888). The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, Volume 13.
[iv] Chittenden, N. H. (1882). Settlers, prospectors and tourists guide: Or, Travels through British Columbia. Victoria.
[v] The Southwestern Reporter, Volume 51 (1899). West Publishing Company
[vi] Congressional Serial Set. (1874). Washington: USGPO
[vii] "The Dance Houses," (1861). British Colonist, 20 December 1861.
[viii] "A Squaw Arrests a White Man," (1862). British Colonist, 17 January 1862