Annita Lucchesi says contrary to some stereotypes, it’s not just sex workers or drug users who fall victim to human trafficking.
She was pursuing a master’s degree in American Studies when it happened to her.
She had been sexually assaulted multiple times in college, and as she dealt with resulting trauma, she entered a violent relationship, which culminated in being trafficked.
“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,” she said.
After escaping her abuser, she began working on a master’s thesis at Washington State University using maps to tell stories of violence.
That’s when she said she realized there wasn’t a comprehensive list tracking violence against Indigenous people in the United States.
So, she created her own by cross-referencing existing lists, social media posts and news articles. Lucchesi admits she was naive in thinking her project would have a start and end date.
“Now, it’s my life’s work,” she said.
Lucchesi founded Sovereign Bodies Institute (SBI), a research hub focused on gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people, in 2018.
The website, found at www.sovereign-bodies.org, includes research and reports on violence, resources for families of missing loved ones and an option to submit to its database.
Lucchesi, 29, is a Cheyenne descendent and lived briefly in Cut Bank. She is a featured speaker in the C.M. Russell Museum’s series, “Studio Conversations: A virtual speaker series focusing on missing and murdered Indigenous women,” which begins this week.
Her video will premiere on Wednesday at 7 p.m. on the museum’s Facebook and YouTube pages.
More:C.M. Russell Museum to host virtual speakers on missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic
Lucchesi said upholding data sovereignty, or Indigenous peoples’ right to govern data about themselves, is critical in her work.
According to her, there is so little data on violence against Native Americans because “law enforcement is notoriously unreliable.”
“Official sources of data are nonexistent. So it’s up to us to track it,” she said.
Lucchesi said the institute’s 2019 report on the Northern Plains identified 411 cases of missing or murdered women and girls from 41 tribal nations, who went missing from 142 locations, 59% of which were on reservations or rural areas.
The report tracked 174 cases in Montana, nearly 75% of which occurred after 2000.
According to the report, about one in four alleged perpetrators in Montana was never charged or convicted.
Lucchesi said that because SBI is led by families and survivors of abuse and violence, people trust them with information.
“It’s critical that family and survivors lead this work because we’re the ones most deeply impacted by the violence and understand it in a way no one else will,” she said, adding that everyone at SBI has been affected by violence in some way. “It’s personal for us. People know we’re committed not just because it’s interesting but because our right to live a life free from violence is tied up in this work, too.”
Michaela Madrid, operations manager at SBI, said the organization’s work would not be possible without Lucchesi.
“(She’s) instilled in our organization a deep sense of commitment to survivors, families, our ancestors, and Indigenous communities everywhere,” Madrid said.
Confronting stereotypes with data
Lucchesi said she shares her story as well as SBI’s research to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women.
“There are a lot of racist stereotypes about women being sex workers or drug users or always being killed by Native men. It’s really easy to debunk those theories in data,” she said, acknowledging that while those situations happen, they do not reflect the majority of cases.
Lucchesi said misconceptions about violence in Indigenous communities are reinforced in media coverage.
“The media is so willing to discuss poverty, substance abuse and high rates of trauma. But we also have a law enforcement system that is completely biased and racism and misogyny in the justice system,” she said.
Lucchesi said a common narrative that Native women “just disappear” is equally harmful.
“There’s something convenient about that narrative that Native women mysteriously disappear like rabbits in hats. It ignores accountability and paints Indian Country as a mysterious and lawless place,” she said.
Perhaps the greatest misconception on violence against Native women, according to Lucchesi, is the strength of survivors.
“Survivors are brilliant and resilient and have so much to contribute,” she said. “With just a little support, we can do amazing things for our communities.”
SBI’s website features worksheets, activity guides, quizzes and a handbook with sections written by families and activists to educate, support and inspire those willing to learn more about violence against Indigenous people.
“As awareness grows, a lot of folks want to help,” Lucchesi said. “We have chapters with boots-on-the-ground ways to get involved and policy and media guides. We want to make sure people have an entry point, whatever their call is.”
While Lucchesi sometimes feels overwhelmed, she said the work is healing for her as a survivor.
“It makes me feel like I’m doing something constructive, like sucking the poison out of this world,” she said. “I refuse to accept I don’t have power over the situation.”
Studio Conversations: A virtual speaker series focusing on missing and murdered Indigenous women
- Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. conversation with Cheryl Horn, aunt of Selena Not Afraid
- Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. conversation with Annita Lucchesi, founder of Sovereign Bodies Institute
- Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. conversation with Jennifer White Bear, mother of Bonnie Three Irons
- Note: All conversations will be available on the C.M. Russell Museum’s Facebook and YouTube pages.
Nora Mabie covers Indigenous communities for the Great Falls Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook @NoraMabieJournalist or on Twitter @NoraMabie.
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