The Sovereign Bodies Institute

Q & A with Executive Director Annita Lucchesi

Annita Lucchesi, executive director, started the Soveriegn Bodies Institute database of Missing and Murdered Native American Women in 2015, after she realized that data was nonexistent or conflicting between law enforcement and grassroots level reporting. Her database has been the cornerstone of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement, having been used for the 2018 Urban Indian Health Institute MMIW report, as well as other academic publications. The Montana Native News Project interviewed Luchessi, the executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, about the database, her research, and stories about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Native News: What is the Sovereign Bodies Institute?

Luchessi: Sovereign Bodies Institute is a nonprofit research institute. We’re focused on community-based research on gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people. We’re the home of the database but we also do a number of different initiatives to support indigenous researchers and community leaders working on the issue. We’re focused on action-based research, and we are 100 percent indigenous. The idea is to be doing research by us, for us.

NN: Why is it important that Native American women spearhead this research?

Lucchesi: For a long time, research has been used as a colonial tool. They’ve repeatedly come to our communities and said let us tell you about you. For us to say no, we know how to tell our stories. We know how to study and understand what’s happening to our people and to our bodies. There’s some sovereignty in that. It’s a reclamation of power.

NN: There has been no data that has been comprehensive about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis. Why you were drawn to working with this?

Lucchesi: I’m a survivor of violence and I’ve also ended my life. I’m a woman who almost ended up on one of these lists. For me it’s personal in that way. But also I think it’s just something that I was called to do. I think the importance of having this data cared for by the community and in ownership by the community is [that] we’re able to gather so much more comprehensive data. I think it’s a really beautiful example of the knowledge that our communities carry and expertise that we have as Indigenous people in being able to gather research that supports the health of our communities.

NN: How does the Sovereign Bodies Institute collect the information it has?

Lucchesi: We do data collection by any means necessary. We start with official governmental records like missing person databases, and we file Freedom of Information Act (requests) for law enforcement records. But we also add to that by using social media, news articles, direct contacts with families, outreach to communities, historical archives. We try to be as creative as possible and utilizing every possible resource out there to make sure that you know everybody to the best of our ability is included and we know that we’re missing thousands of cases.

NN: Why is it important to have a completely comprehensive look at these cases?

Lucchesi: You can’t respond to violence you don’t track. We’re not going to be able to design an effective community or policy or law enforcement solutions if we don’t fully understand the dynamics of the violence, and up until this point we haven’t been able to do that because there hasn’t been this kind of comprehensive data source.

NN: What has been one of the most striking things about going through all these cases that has arisen for you?

Lucchesi: One thing that I’ve learned in doing this work is that an indigenous approach to data is all about relationships. And that’s very different from western forms of research or Western understanding of data. When I look through the data, I see women and girls that I knew who have stories similar to mine, and there is quite a few cases where I know their family members, and so it becomes personal. We take the database into ceremony, and there are families that we’ve worked with for years that we’ll be connected to for life. There’s a level of commitment and a level of engagement in working with this data that I think doesn’t exist in other types of research.

NN: Why does the Sovereign Bodies Institute require requests for access to database information?

Lucchesi: It’s deeply personal information. When the FBI and the Canadian national government both asked us for the database. We spent several months traveling around Indian Country and asking folks what do you feel about this? Are you comfortable with this being shared? And the overwhelming majority of the answers were no. We didn’t have any family members of an MMIW that felt comfortable with that information being shared. So this was something that we decided collectively that this is for us, by us. What that means is it’s not available for any colonial governmental agency. This is about advocating for our women from a decolonized space. We don’t do colonial government jobs for them and that’s basically what they’ve asked us to do. They’re responsible. They’ve decided that they want the responsibility for addressing this violence by deciding that they’re the best agency to have jurisdiction, and yet they don’t even bother to track the information.

NN: Would have been some of the biggest difficulties face in this research?

Lucchesi: They’re certainly all sorts of challenges with law enforcement not complying with records requests or giving us inaccurate reports and inaccurate data. That’s been frustrating for sure. But the biggest challenge for me personally is that there’s a lot of emotion that come with this work, a lot of responsibilities, a lot of heavy things to carry.

NN: Have there been any inspirational moments doing this work?

Lucchesi: I will say I’m really encouraged by how fast the movement has continued to grow. One of the inspiring moments in the last year that came out of Montana was, I had done an interview with this newspaper. There was a white woman who messaged me and she said, I had no idea this was happening. If this happened to my baby I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. How can I help. Just kind of gave her the stock answer that I give to everyone, but she actually ran with it and rallied other non-native folks to run with it too. And they started contacting every major news outlet in Montana every time a new case happened and would continue to call and say “Why haven’t you covered thi?” She’s a stay at home mom, so she said this is what I can do. It worked. Now major news outlets across Montana are covering this issue in a way that they never have before. I think it shows the power of community building the power of allies.

NN: What would you like for people who are coming to this issue with no context to know?

Lucchesi: I think the one thing that I really try to impress on people is that this issue affects all of us not just native folks not just people in tribal communities. This is a public safety issue that affects everyone. And I think a lot of people don’t even realize that. When they are driving to drop their kid off at school, they are driving past the place where someone’s body was found or when a girl goes missing that that’s actually their kids’ classmate. And so when we start to act on that neighborhood belonging and sense of community. I think we can get a lot done on this issue.