HONOLULU (AP) – At first he was just a friend. He gave gifts and attentions to Ashley Maha’a. But then he gave her drugs and became controlling and abusive. He would punish her for breaking ambiguous, undefined “rules” only to later apologize and shower her with flowers and lavish gifts.
After a while, he led the Honolulu High School senior – a 17-year-old minor – into the commercial sex trade in Hawaii.
âI shouldn’t be here with everything that was going on. I should be dead And most of the people in my situation are missing or dead, âsaid Maha’a, the native Hawaiian.
Maha’a left this world years ago and is now a married mother of four. But it preoccupies her as she joins a new task force dealing with the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous Hawaiians. She remembers her plight every day so she can fight for others who are similarly trapped and vulnerable.
The body, set up by the State House earlier this year, aims to collect data and identify the causes of the problem. There are few numbers as of now, but those that suggest indigenous Hawaiians are disproportionately represented among the victims of the state’s sex trafficking.
His work comes amid renewed calls for people to pay more attention to missing and killed indigenous women and girls and other colored people after the recent disappearance of Gabby Petito, a white woman, sparked wide national media coverage and extensive searches by law enforcement agencies. Petito’s body was later found in Wyoming.
Several states formed similar bodies after a groundbreaking report by the Urban Indian Health Institute found that of more than 5,700 cases of missing and killed indigenous girls in dozen of U.S. cities in 2016, only 116 were recorded in a Department of Justice database.
The Wyoming Task Force found that 710 indigenous peoples disappeared there between 2011 and September 2020 and that indigenous peoples made up 21% of the murder victims, despite making up only 3% of the population. In Minnesota, a task force led the establishment of a dedicated office to provide ongoing attention and guidance on this issue.
The Urban Indian Health Institute report did not include data on Indigenous Hawaiians because the organization is funded by the Indian Health Service, a US agency that services Indians and Alaskan Indians but not native Hawaiians. The Seattle Institute does not have the resources to expand the study to Hawaii, said director Abigail Echo-Hawk.
It is not the first time Indigenous Hawaiians have been sidelined in the broader national debate. The federal government’s efforts to address the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women are often focused on Native American and Alaskan people – in part because they have authority over serious crimes in most tribal areas, and Indigenous Hawaiians do not have such lands in the same vein as many other indigenous communities in the United States. A Home Office spokesman said it was instead working to support and partner with government programs in the islands.
However, Hawaii faces many of the same challenges as other states, including a lack of data on missing and murdered indigenous women. The exact number of cases nationwide is unknown as many have not been reported or have not been well documented or tracked.
Public and private agencies do not always collect statistics on the breed. And some data group Indigenous Hawaiians with other Pacific islanders, making it impossible to determine the extent to which the Hawaiian indigenous population is affected. Approximately 20% of the state’s population are Hawaiians.
Its task force is led by representatives from the Hawaii State Commission on the State of Women and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a semi-autonomous state agency led by indigenous Hawaiians. The board also includes members of state authorities, district police authorities and private organizations.
Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the commission and co-chair of the task force, suspects her work will show that Hawaii’s vast tourism industry and military presence are fueling the sex trade. The money from these sectors gives people an incentive to take girls and women out of their families, she said.
âIt’s not like someone is being kidnapped from the street. It is this person who is led and convinced to cut off their family when they are a child or a teenager, âsaid Jabola-Carolus.
Native American and Alaskan women and girls lawyers say sex trafficking affects them too, particularly in areas with high levels of temporary male workers.
Maha’a said the extent of the commercial sex industry in Hawaii is also illustrated by the number of girls and women brought to the islands from other states.
âI’ve met so many people on the mainland, and so, so many of them have told me that if they were traded nationally, they would be flown here for a while and would work here if things went slow. because the demand is so high, âsaid Maha’a.
Lawyers say a number of systemic problems contribute to the problem. Native Hawaiians have the highest poverty rate – 15.5% – of any five largest ethnic groups in Hawaii, which is also one of the most expensive places in the country to rent or own property.
The history of colonization has torn indigenous Hawaiians away from their land, language and culture, much like indigenous communities in other states.
Rosemond Pettigrew, CEO of Pouhana ‘O Na Wahine, a grassroots collective of Indigenous Hawaiians who campaign against domestic and sexual violence, said land is a family and that non-connection with it separates Indigenous Hawaiians from their past.
“If you part with what you know or believe and are no longer on land, then you stay where you don’t know where you are from and who you are, and your identity is lost.” She said.
Echo-Hawk of the Urban Indian Health Institute said Hawaii’s task force was “monumental” and necessary to understand the full extent of the problem.
She suspects that some of the biggest barriers will be how to get law enforcement working and lack of dedicated funding. Legislators have not allocated any money to the panel, so its members rely on existing resources to conduct their research. The most successful state task forces have resources, Echo-Hawk said.
It will be important for the task force to recognize that the problems are rooted in government policies, said Paula Julian, senior policy expert at the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center in Montana. The solutions for native Hawaiians, meanwhile, must come from native Hawaiians, she said.
Pettigrew said she would like to invest resources in prevention. For example, Hawaii public schools could teach students about healthy relationships in elementary school. Classes could be about dating once students enter middle and high school.
State Representative Stacelynn Eli, a native Hawaiian and Democrat who supported the resolution to create the task force, said she had friends and classmates who were victims of human trafficking. She doesn’t want her nieces to experience the same thing because no one knew enough to do anything about it.
âWe survive, and I want our people to reach a point where we can thrive. And I think we will not get to that point until we are sure we are protecting our native women and children and holding those who try to harm them accountable, âshe said.
The body is expected to produce reports for the legislature by the end of 2022 and 2023.