Student Success

Making a difference one name at a time

When Annita Lucchesi describes herself, she will tell you her Indian name is Hetoevėhotohke’e, which means Evening Star Woman, and that she is a Heévȧhetané'e, a Southern Cheyenne woman. She’s a direct descendant of the people who come from the place where the Ho'honáéva (Rocky Mountains) meet the tóhtoo'éšé'e (prairie). Her life has been marked by abuse, but she is a survivor and is proud to be a mé’êśko’áe, a hellraiser girl —one who is always stirring things up.

Having a firm grasp on who she is and her roots has not only formed a foundation for Lucchesi personally, but has been invaluable in directing her research as a PhD student in the Cultural, Social, and Political Thought program at the University of Lethbridge.

After earning a Bachelor of Arts in geography from the University of California-Berkeley, Lucchesi graduated from Washington State University in 2016 with a Master of Arts in American Studies. Several years ago, while working as an activist and advocate, Lucchesi found herself frustrated with the lack of comprehensive information regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW).

While there were many lists and sources, there was no central database that was routinely updated and shared with the general public. Those that did exist often were formed on narrow, exclusive criteria with missing gaps. As a response, Lucchesi herself began to log the names of MMIW in Canada and the United States, from 1900 to the present, gathering information from news articles, online databases, family members, social media, federal and state missing persons databases, law enforcement records and lists compiled by Indigenous advocates and community members.

As the lines of names multiplied, it grew to be a spiritual process for Lucchesi and her research became a form of ceremony.

“I came to understand myself not just as a data collector, but as a caretaker for the data and the spirits,” she says. “Maintaining the database is a process of prayer in the sense that there’s so much unhealed trauma and so much unhealed grief around these pieces; if we’re able to document and honour them and help their stories and the violence they experienced have meaning, then we may be able to resolve some of that grief and trauma.”

Lucchesi's work has garnered significant attention internationally as it has been covered by NPR in the United States, The Daily Mail in the United Kingdom and on The Stream through Al Jazeera.

For Lucchesi, the work is deeply personal. Many of the names, including those of family, friends and former students, are familiar. What’s more, as a survivor of domestic and sexual abuse, she recognizes how easily she could have been one of the almost 3,000 names recorded.

“I came to this work as a woman who almost became a victim on lists of missing and murdered native women myself,” Lucchesi writes in her thesis proposal. “If any of the men who almost killed me had succeeded, I would want to be honoured and remembered. I would want my story and the violence that I experienced to have meaning. I would want to be part of the fight for future generations of native girls to not have to go through such violence.”

Now taking her work further, Lucchesi is using the continually evolving database as a springboard for a PhD thesis — a project in which she hopes to take the information and transform it for even greater healing.

Lucchesi plans to gather stories and create an atlas of maps recognizing, honouring and addressing the geographies in which Indigenous women live and die. And while she will be a contributor as a cartographer, the intent is to create a wide collection of maps by bringing others into the process.

“Individually, each map tells its own story, but collectively they also tell a much bigger story,” she says.

Waiting first for an invitation, Lucchesi will work with local anti-violence organizations in various tribal communities in Canada and the U.S. — both on reservations and in urban areas — to host voluntary workshops. Participants will be given opportunities to share their stories, and ultimately be involved in mapping.

“People think maps are super technical, difficult to do and that you need all sorts of training, but that’s really not the case,” says Lucchesi. “When people think of Indigenous mapping they think of something pre-contact, super traditional. Certainly, it can be those things, but I’m giving people glitter glue. Mapping doesn’t have to be super fancy or historical; as long as it represents our cultures and experiences, it’s Indigenous mapping.”

Her work aligns with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's description of research creation as "an approach to research that combines creative and academic research practices, and supports the development of knowledge and innovation through artistic expression, scholarly investigation and experimentation."

As Lucchesi explains, we encounter maps every day in everything from directions on our iPhones to news articles. They are regarded as scientific and authoritative and held with respect. But mapping also provides the opportunity to create a platform where community members can tell their experiences and interpretations of what violence looks like in their community.

Lucchesi points to current examples such as a map that analyzes the life paths of individual victims in Montreal and Thunder Bay, and the changes in geography that put them at risk, or a series of maps of the night sky from varying locations, with constellations representing stories from the people indigenous to that area and the murder victims represented as stars. The possibilities are endless.In this way, mapping is highly adaptable and can build bridges that humanize narratives while staying true to statistics and numbers.

“It is designed to empower Indigenous people to tell their stories in ways that are meaningful to them and to collectively use this storytelling to organize against continued violence,” she says.

In cartography, a field dominated by white men, Lucchesi is an outlier (there were a record-breaking two Indigenous cartographers at the International Cartographic Association conference last year and Lucchesi was one of them), so the mentorship she’s received from Dr. Jan Newberry, her PhD supervisor at uLethbridge, has been immeasurable.

“Jan’s been a wonderful advocate for me,” says Lucchesi. “All of my experiences with geography have been with male faculty and male mentors, so having a woman mentor with a background in geography, mapping and space has been a really good fit. She’s been amazing.”

In that same spirit, Lucchesi is supporting other young, native women, helping them find their own roots and the personal definitions that will steer the course of their lives. As Lucchesi explains, knowing her research presents the capacity for change motivates her, even in the face of trauma and obstacles.

“I love, love, love seeing youth getting involved. For example, I’ve been able to Skype with a girls’ basketball team in Montana that is working on raising awareness of this issue by doing a community project and petitioning their tribe for change. It’s just amazing to see these girls who don’t have to do that, but choose to. To be able to talk and support them in what they’re doing is really exciting; it makes me feel like I’m doing something useful,” says Lucchesi. “Cheyenne women are known for being resilient, beautiful and immensely strong and brave. It is my aim to continue that legacy.”