“The ribbon skirt is a form of cultural clothing that represents the sacredness of American Indian and Alaska Native women and the deep connection their bodies and spirits have to the land. Just like a skirt, each American Indian and Alaska Native community has its own beauty and stories of resilience despite multiple ribbons of trauma and violence stacked upon them. We chose to represent the study’s findings in this way to honor the sacredness of our urban missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the prayers we hold them in, and the responsibility we have to care for their stories.” – from Annita Lucchesi and Urban Indian Health Institute’s “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” report. Illustration courtesy of: Urban Indian Health Institute

Indigenous communities in the United States have historically been overlooked by the government and the greater public; using new advances in technology, Annita Lucchesi is working to change this.

Lucchesi (whose Cheyenne name is Hetoevehotohke’e, which translates to “Evening Star Woman”) is a doctoral student at the University of Lethbridge and freelance cartographer, who specializes in researching Indigenous and critical cartography, Indigenous feminisms, postcolonial geographies, and Indigenous research methodologies.

She noticed through her research (and really her own experience) that records on Native Americans throughout the country—particularly murder victims and those who go missing—were poorly recorded or preserved.

Fed up with the bureaucracy and negligence of government agencies, Lucchesi decided she would begin her own database of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in Canada and the United States. Being of Southern Cheyenne descent, as well as a survivor of violence, she connected with these victims. She felt it her responsibility to ensure her fellow community members were not forgotten.

“For me, it’s personal,” Lucchesi said. “If I was one of the women on this list, I would want my story used so it doesn’t happen to other people.”

In order to find this data, Lucchesi used law enforcement records, state and national databases, media coverage, social media, as well as community and family member accounts as sources for their data. Using sources from wherever she could, she was able to find cases that were not recorded into the databases available to them

The Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) in Seattle noticed the work she was doing and offered to help Lucchesi reach her goal.

“Abigail [Echo-Hawk], the director [of UIHI], reached out to me and said, ‘Hey I see what you’re doing. It’s something that needs to be supported. How can we collaborate?’” Lucchesi explained. “That’s when the two of us had the idea for this project.”

Dealing with difficult police departments did create some obstacles while collecting the data, Lucchesi said. However, she also praised certain police departments, such as Anchorage Police, for being cooperative and helpful in their requests. Another challenge in collecting the data, was the accuracy of police reports. Some departments would classify of the victim’s race/ethnicity incorrectly in case reports, making accurate data collection even tougher. When attempting to gather data from the Santa Fe Police Department, Lucchesi and her team were told: “[Many] Native Americans adopted Hispanic names back during colonial times…Our crime systems are not flexible enough to pick out Native Americans from others in the system…it would be impossible to compile any statistically relevant information for you.”

Factors like these make it almost impossible to gather accurate numbers on how many cases of MMIWG there really are.

“There are over 3,000 cases in the main database as a whole, and I’m estimating that I’m missing about 25,000-30,000 more,” Lucchesi claimed.

Illustration courtesy of: Urban Indian Health Institute/Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report

Still, on Nov. 14, Lucchesi and UIHI released their findings, summarizing data from 71 urban areas across 29 states. Their report identified 506 cases across the 71 selected cities—128 (25 percent) were missing persons cases, 280 (56 percent) were murder cases, and 98 (19 percent) had an unknown status. The youngest victim in the report was a baby less than one, and the oldest was 83.

The report also found that 66 out of 506 were tied to domestic and sexual violence. San Francisco had the 10th the highest number of MMIWG cases with 17 in the report, and California was the sixth with 40.

The report’s release has already made and impact, raising awareness of the general public and even influencing policy in the form of Savanna’s Act, passed which was passed by the U.S. Senate on Dec. 6.

Named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a Native American Woman who was eight months pregnant when she was abducted and murdered, the bill was originally Introduced on Oct. 5, 2017, more than a year before the release of Lucchesi’s report. The legislation had stalled in congress, but Lucchesi’s findings were able to help in getting Savanna’s Act passed in the Senate.

At the recommendation of the report, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee amended Savanna’s Act to ask that federal, tribal, state, and local law enforcement agencies track and annually report data on missing and murdered Native people, no longer excluding urban MMIWG. The changes also require the U.S. Department of Justice to publicly publish on its website a list of all the law enforcement agencies that refuse to comply with the act; require all law enforcement to receive training and implement guidelines for adequately and accurately logging tribal affiliation of missing and murdered Native people, and those tribal nations must have access to the data on their citizens; and require law enforcement to report and pull records on cases of missing and murdered Native people that happened in the last 10 years.

The legislation now better addresses the problem of MMIWG by improving data on Native American victims, and creating protocols for responding to cases of MMIWG.

“We had a press release in [Washington] D.C. for the report. There were five senators there and three hours later, they went and significantly edited Savanna’s Act,” Lucchesi said.

Although the project with UIHI is complete, Lucchesi’s work is far from over. “[The database] is something I’m committed to doing for as long as it’s necessary, though I hope it won’t be,” she said. “Until then, I will continue doing the work.”

The report is available to read at the Urban Indian Health Institute’s website, uihi.org.