Mapping Out Missing and Murdered Native Women: “I Would Want My Story to Have Meaning”
Annita Lucchesi, a cartographer and doctoral student at the University of Lethbridge’s Cultural, Social and Political Thought program, recently created and published an online database1 logging cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and Two-Spirit people. She began gathering information for the database in 2015 from news articles, online databases, and lists compiled by Native advocates and community members, family members, social media, federal and state missing persons’ databases, and law enforcement records gathered through public records requests.
She personally vets all information she receives before adding it to the database. Cases date from 1900 to the present; as of April 2018, she has found 2,501 cases of missing and murdered women and Two-Spirit people in the United States and Canada.
There is no reliable national collection point or method to gathering comprehensive statistics on the number of missing and murdered Native women in the United States. This was emphasized in a 2015 series2 by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, which noted that there is no dependable national data source in the United States regarding missing murdered people or unidentified remains.
For Native people, available data is scattered throughout various tribal, federal, state, and other jurisdictions. Although the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System3 (NAMUS) functions as the U.S. Department of Justice’s publicly accessible database, its information is dependent on data provided by various jurisdictions on a volunteer basis.
NAMUS does, indeed, provide a search option for missing persons by race, including Native Americans. Currently, NAMUS lists 102 cases of Native American women reported missing and 16 cases4 of Native American female unidentified remains—an undercount, as advocates have argued. Meanwhile, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police released a 2013 report5 that found 1,181 missing or murdered Aboriginal females in Canada.
The results in NAMUS are especially unreliable for Native peoples due to the confusing question of jurisdictional reporting responsibility, which can include tribal, state, federal, or county agencies. For instance, tribal law enforcement agencies can take missing persons reports,6 but there is no guarantee that the report will be passed along to other agencies or be investigated. Tribal courts lack authority to prosecute major criminal cases and have limited resources for investigations. So depending on the state in which the tribe is located, either federal, county, or state authorities decide if they will pursue such cases.
Tribal and other police lose a great deal of time deciding which agency is ultimately responsible for an investigation. In missing persons’ cases, time can be of the essence.
Further, much about Indian Country falls outside of western-based data and information collection methods. Native people may be reluctant to report missing persons and communities may lack resources to investigate. Caught in a maddening catch-22, Native communities are also typically at the bottom of the list for receiving federal and state support for infrastructure-building efforts, such as improving law enforcement7 and judiciary systems, which could help bolster data collection systems in the United States.
“The MMIW database is officially up and running! Two cool new features: a dedicated email for data requests and submissions (firstname.lastname@example.org), and on the Submit page, a downloadable sheet with instructions and tips on filing records requests for those who want to get involved in data collection. This is an ongoing project so the website will get updated over time, but I'm happy to finally have a home for all database-related info. Please share this post and spread the word, and thank you to everyone who has supported the growth of the database and used the stories in it to advocate for safety for our sisters!”
—Annita Lucchesi, MMIWG Database Developer and Cartographer
As reported in Rewire.News,8 generations of distrust among Native peoples for mainstream law enforcement agencies contributes to the lack of data.
“There is so much fear and distrust of law enforcement among our people that they are often reluctant to report loved ones as missing or to report sexual violence,” noted Carmen O’Leary, coordinator of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains in South Dakota, a coalition of Native programs that provide services to women who experience violence.
Police may be more interested in the criminal background of missing Native women than in working to find them; this creates a chilling effect on families’ likelihood of filing missing reports, according to O’Leary and other advocates.
Native people may also be reluctant to provide DNA samples for inclusion in federal databases. As noted in a 2015 Atlantic article9, Native peoples have reason to be suspicious of Western-based data gathering and research projects. “Native Americans . . . have witnessed their artifacts, remains, and land taken away, shared, and discussed among academics for centuries,” wrote Rose Eveleth.
Lucchesi is keenly aware of this exploitative history, and she doesn’t make the missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) database information available in its entirety to all visitors to the site. She maintains the data via Excel spreadsheets with the help of volunteers. Potential users must first provide information on the type of data required, as well as their plans for using it.
For Lucchesi, navigating the material is a ceremony. “I think of navigating the data as prayer. Like ceremony, I have attached protocol in its use,” she said. “I don’t consider myself an owner of this information, but rather a caretaker. I want to ensure that women will be honored by the use of their data.”
Lucchesi asks those submitting reports of missing and murdered women to include greater depth of information than required by mainstream databases. For instance, the MMIW database includes tribal affiliation, an essential descriptor for Native peoples. Listings may also include information regarding life circumstances that may have led to the victim going missing.
Although Reveal created10 what journalists describe as a more streamlined tool to search for missing and murdered people, the program does not indicate tribal affiliation for Native subjects.
A survivor of domestic and sexual violence, Lucchesi was almost a victim on the lists she maintains, she told Rewire.News. “If any of the men who almost killed me had succeeded, I would want to be honored and remembered. I would want my story and the violence I experienced to have meaning. I would want to be part of the fight for future generations of Indian girls not to have to go through such violence,” she said.
Restoration is honored to reprint, in part, Mary Annette Pember’s article on Annita Lucchesi and appreciates her ongoing reporting of issues impacting the safety of Native women and sovereignty of Indian nations that are generally seldom covered in mainstream news. The full article on Annita Lucchesi’s mapping and database projects can be accessed at https://rewire.news/article/2018/04/27/mapping-missing-murdered-native-….