POLSON — As Annita Lucchesi began researching violence against Native American women, she hit a problem.
“The more I looked, the messier it got,” the Southern Cheyenne researcher told an audience in Polson on Monday, describing how the MMIW Database came to be. This database now logs thousands of cases of murdered and missing indigenous people throughout the Americas, and she sees a variety of ways it could stem this trend.
Murders and disappearances of Native American women have risen to prominence lately, inspiring protests and vigils around Montana and legislation in both Helena and Washington, D.C.
There’s broad consensus that improving data access is vital to helping law enforcement solve cold cases. Existing studies have shown Native women face far higher rates of violence than their non-Native counterparts, a problem that's been variously attributed to racism, insufficient resources, jurisdictional gaps between law enforcement agencies, and other factors. But as Lucchesi began researching this issue while a master’s student at Washington State University, she found the underlying data lacking.
“The more numbers you try to find, none of them match,” she said, speaking at a conference Monday hosted by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes at KwaTaqNuk Resort. While databases exist, she said, “they all collect different kinds of things and so if you're trying to make sense of this issue, you're going to look at 50 different places (and) the more confused you're going to get.”
According to a report Lucchesi co-authored, “in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, though the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database, NamUs, only logged 116 cases.”
As a survivor of domestic violence and trafficking, Lucchesi found it harrowing that her experience could have slipped through the cracks. “I was really frustrated, feeling like if any of those people had been successful in killing me there was no guarantee that what I went through was going to be part of making sure that doesn't happen to other women and girls.”
And so she began building the database.
“We like to use a method I lovingly call ‘data collection by any means necessary,’” Lucchesi said. She and her colleagues have scoured existing databases, filed records requests with law enforcement agencies around the country, and gotten creative to find cases they may have missed. In Canada, they searched records of executed criminals for their victims’ names, then painstakingly matched them with indigenous communities around that country, adding about 40 cases to the list.
They’ve tailored their approach to those they’re serving. “We track everything the community tells us to track, and that changes constantly,” she said. That goes far beyond basic information like name, age and tribal affiliations. It includes how law enforcement and the court system handled cases; “bureaucratic violence” such as remains being improperly withheld from a victim’s family, and whether the victim had children.
“No one really seems to be looking at the impact this is having on our youth,” she pointed out. “We really don’t know how many kids go off to school every year without their moms or without their grandmoms or without their aunties. That’s something we should know.”
The database is now housed by the Sovereign Bodies Institute, where Lucchesi serves as executive director (she’s also a doctoral student at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta). So far, Lucchesi said they’ve catalogued almost 4,000 cases stretching back to 1900 across the United States and Canada, and recently expanded it to include Latin America.
They have a long way to go. “When I first started the database, I was kind of naïve in thinking there was going to be a start and an end. Now, I recognize that this will probably be my life’s work.”
While every last case has yet to be recorded, she’s already found value in the work.
Theda New Breast, a Blackfeet healer and Sovereign Bodies Institute board member who also spoke Monday, has been bringing poster boards with database victims’ names to Blackfoot Confederacy tribes, inviting them to discuss the topic and add more. “It's opened up spaces for dialogue (on the topic) where it just didn't exist before,” Lucchesi said. “Creating that space can be really healing and really important, and that's a big part of what we try to do with the data.”
It can also aid investigators. “Sometimes coroners will reach out to us and say, 'Hey we have a Jane Doe,” an unidentified victim. They provide relevant information, and “we’ll comb through the database and see if there's any possible matches and send them that information.”
On its website, the Sovereign Bodies Institute states that “at this time, the Database does not grant access to raw data to non-Indigenous scholars, colonial governmental agencies” — which, Lucchesi clarified, means any non-tribal ones — “or the press.”
“We don’t have the data posted anywhere online and that’s out of respect for the data as something that’s sacred,” she said. They provide the information on an as-requested basis, and are developing features like a data portal and email alerts to streamline the process.
Lucchesi had brought the database’s local information to Polson. “We have 180 cases logged across Montana statewide as of last night,” she said. While the database stretches back to 1900, she said about three-quarters of Montana’s records are after 2000, when records become more readily accessible.
Of the 180, she said 67 are listed as “status unknown,” meaning they were entered into a missing-persons registry at some point, but were then taken off, and their whereabouts have never been determined.
Of those, 16 were affiliated with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. On that list, tribal council member Myrna Dumontier saw her grandmother, Susan Irvine Adams.
“She died in January of 1959,” she remembered. “ She was found behind the co-op gas station in Arlee and was ruled (an) exposure death but looking into the details … it couldn't have been exposure death,” she said.
Lucchesi thanked her for the information and said they could look at updating her entry; the database tracks when community accounts differ from the official record.
“It's out there all the time, there's no answers, and I was hoping that it would bring like a closure to my family's grief,” Dumontier said afterward.
“I needed people to know that this is a real thing, and it's been going on a long time and the Indian women especially are marginalized and they don't have a voice and I wanted to give my grandmother a voice, I wanted her story to be included so that her voice and her story are heard.”
To learn more about the MMIW database, visit http://www.sovereign-bodies.org.