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The Missing And Murdered Indigenous Women From Across The U.S.


A new study finds there's an alarming lack of data about Native American women and girls who've gone missing or had been murdered in U.S. cities. One of the researchers behind that study is Annita Lucchesi. She comes from the Cheyenne people, who are indigenous to the Great Plains. She and her co-author Abigail Echo-Hawk spent a year requesting that data from police departments around the country. What they found are that institutional practices allow missing and murdered indigenous women to, as they read in their report, disappear not once but three times - in life, in the media and in the data. Annita Lucchesi joins me. Annita, welcome to the program.

ANNITA LUCCHESI: Thank you for having me.

PFEIFFER: Annita, much of this type of work has been focused in the past on Indigenous and Native American women living on reservations. But is your study specifically looking at urban areas?

LUCCHESI: Yes. The report focuses on this violence as it occurs in 71 cities across the country. And so I know that people like to imagine Native people as living on reservations far away from their communities. But we actually live everywhere where everyone else is, too.

PFEIFFER: Is there an assumption that Indigenous and Native American women are murdered or disappear at a higher rate than other women in the U.S.?

LUCCHESI: Yes. Murder is the third-leading cause of death of American Indian women. And rates of violence can be up to 10 times higher than the national average on reservations. However, there are no statistics like that for urban communities, which is what this report sought to fill the gap for.

PFEIFFER: And when you requested those records and found that data was incomplete, what explained that?

LUCCHESI: So some of them were due to racial misclassification. So there's quite a few examples of cases where the victim was erroneously classified as white in the system. And part of that is due to those institutional practices. So, for example, Fargo police told us that if an officer doesn't enter in victim race, the system defaults to white. And then there's also just, I think, a lack of communication between law enforcement and victims' families and communities. You know, we're able to very clearly identify who's a member of our community. And for some reason, that's a question that's not being asked.

PFEIFFER: And do you believe that the end result is that there's an undercounting of Indigenous and Native American women who've gone missing or been murdered?

LUCCHESI: Absolutely.

PFEIFFER: Why does that matter? Why is it a problem if we don't have the numbers correct and they're too low?

LUCCHESI: We can't address violence we do not track. If we don't have any data on this violence as it occurs in cities and we assume that it only happens in reservations, that means all of our funding, all of our community programs is going to be directed to those reservations spaces. And while that's still useful for reservation-based communities and definitely needed, it leaves out those urban families and communities. So any policy that doesn't address that violence, as well, is just not going to end the violence.

PFEIFFER: What do you think needs to be done to get a more accurate picture? And can it also be done retroactively or only in future reporting?

LUCCHESI: I think it definitely can be done retroactively. I would encourage all law enforcement agencies to digitize their archived case files. I would also encourage law enforcement to revisit their protocol for defining or entering in victim race. And I think require large enforcement to learn to track not just whether someone was native but their actual tribal affiliation - is really useful because tribal nations should be able to advocate for their citizens when they go missing or are murdered. But the problem is they don't even know when that occurs because law enforcement aren't telling them.

PFEIFFER: I've been told that this research is very personal for you. But I don't know the backstory for why you took this project on. Why did you?

LUCCHESI: So my first experience of sexual assault was in the Bay Area. I also experienced sexual assault in Albuquerque, life-threatening domestic violence and trafficking in Spokane. For me, there's been so many times when, you know, I experienced traumatic violence or I was almost killed and I almost became one of the women in this list. And because the narrative was so focused on reservations and excluded urban communities, you know, my experiences wouldn't necessarily have been counted. And that didn't sit well.

PFEIFFER: That was researcher Annita Lucchesi of the Urban Indian Health Institute. She joined us from member station KHSU in Northern California. Annita, thank you, and best wishes with your work.

LUCCHESI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.