Annita Hetoevehotohke’e Lucchesi serves as founding executive director of Sovereign Bodies Institute (SBI), a California-based nonprofit research center that addresses gender and sexual violence against Native people.
The institute also keeps a comprehensive database, which was started in 2015, on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across the United States and Canada. The database contained 4,749 names and stories of missing individuals as of August 10, 2021. They are part of the MMIWG2S movement, which stands for Missing and Murdered Women, Girls and 2-Spirit People.
Lucchesi spoke with A&E True Crime about SBI’s work and the challenges it faces.
How do you gather the data and what are the obstacles?
We use a multifaceted approach. We look at police reports, we look at missing persons databases, we file Freedom of Information Act requests with law enforcement agencies. We utilize social media posts, historical archives, tribal archives, news coverage. And we also build a lot of direct relationships with Native people, families and impacted communities.
That’s what sets our work with the Sovereign Bodies Institute apart from other agencies or databases. It’s a reflection of our expertise. Not just in terms of who to count, but how to track and document things in a way that’s representative of our experiences as survivors and Indigenous women.
Do you see trends in the data?
The reality is that there isn’t a single place in this country that hasn’t been affected by [missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls]. Unfortunately, there are a lot of stereotypes about us being sex workers, promiscuous, substance abusers or addicts. Or that we are easy to abuse because we put up with it. For every place and case that matches the stereotype, there are two more that don’t.
The data show that while there are stories of violence against sex workers and domestic violence victims who are afraid to leave, for all those stories there’s stories of women who are really strong and who weren’t experiencing personal violence. I am a survivor of trafficking and I don’t think I match any of those stereotypes. I am also a sober Ph.D. student who is actively learning her culture and becoming strong in her culture. The majority of the women in the database, that I know of, have stories like mine. They were connected to their family and connected to their people. The same goes for location. There are some places that have higher number of cases than others.
Are Indigenous women at greater risk for violence than the general population?
I don’t think we have accurate data on the general population, especially when it comes to other women of color, so I can’t really talk about a comparison. Anecdotally, and based on our research at the Sovereign Bodies Institute, the vast majority of Indigenous women have experienced at least one or more forms of violence in their lifetime. I can count on one hand the number of women I know that haven’t experienced physical or sexual violence. I think this is because Native women and girls are not seen as human beings, they are not valued as human beings. It’s also about not holding perpetrators accountable and creating systems of law that actively put women and girls at risk by not allowing tribal nations to practice their inherent sovereignty to protect their citizens.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your efforts?
Our services program has really exploded during the pandemic. [SBI offers virtual art therapy circles, a 24/7 phone and text support line, free teletherapy and direct services such as referrals, emergency financial assistance, legal and media advocacy and more.]
We didn’t start out as a service provider, but we found pretty early on that our research is strong when our people are stronger, when they are taken care of.
The biggest thing we have seen is an increase in murders not necessarily tied to interpersonal or partner violence. Murders have been on the rise, and law enforcement have not investigated as they should. In many places, [law enforcement] positions are open or unfilled, and the attitude is, ‘Oh, we don’t have the time [to investigate].’ Tribal law enforcement doesn’t have jurisdiction over murder cases, so nothing happens.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced in April 2021 the creation of a new Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services. What are your thoughts on that?
My hope is that the federal government really wants to take a proactive stance on this crisis and that this is not another system of investing in systems that are already negligent and complicit.
We’ve been through this with Operation Lady Justice and their cold case review teams. [Operation Lady Justice is a task force on missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives established in November 2019 under the Trump administration.]
I work with hundreds of families across the country, and not a single one of them has heard from those cold case review teams. We have been given no means of communication, no protocols or procedures about how cases get elevated to their attention.
Creating this new initiative [under Haaland], I understand that it comes from a good place, but it’s really not that helpful if it’s built on a foundation that’s rotten and doesn’t take into account the expertise of the people actually living the crisis.
What can be done to better protect Indigenous women and children, particularly from the perspective of non-Native people?
Require elected representatives to invest in tribal sovereignty [which would give Native people the right to govern themselves, create their own laws, etc.]. Require that the systems in place that are meant to respond to the crisis actually do so. That’s not just elected members of Congress or politicians—that’s your local coroner and your local sheriff, which are elected positions. And listening to families and the survivors, giving them a platform to not just give them a voice, but to give them a leading role.
Are there positives in your work?
It’s a positive every time someone is found safe and brought home. I’ve never seen law enforcement do that. Every time I’ve seen that happen, it’s because advocates have boots on the ground, searching. [For example,] we have had some really exciting progress in our work in case advocacy in Montana, with having advocates at the table [with law enforcement] in trying to make sense where investigations have gone wrong.