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How The Treatment Of Indigenous Women In The U.S. Compares To Canada


Canada is reckoning with its treatment of indigenous women, and we're going to look now at how the situation in the U.S. compares. This week, a Canadian government report described the disappearance and death of thousands of indigenous women as a genocide. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised a change.


PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: To the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls of Canada, to their families and to survivors, we have failed you. We will fail you no longer.

SHAPIRO: The situation in the U.S. is likely even worse than in Canada. Native women here are murdered and abused at rates more than 10 times the national average. And many suspect that is an undercount. Annita Lucchesi is executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, an organization that tracks the number of missing and murdered indigenous women in the U.S. and Canada. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


SHAPIRO: The report from the Canadian government uses the word genocide to describe how the country has failed to stop the disappearances and deaths of indigenous women. Is that term genocide one that tribal communities in the U.S. are using as well?

LUCCHESI: Yes. This is something that our communities have been saying for a long time, and I think it's really powerful to finally have that validation and to hear it from somebody else.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us a sense of the scale of the problem in the U.S.?

LUCCHESI: Sovereign Bodies Institute has documented over 2,000 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, girls and two-spirit folks in the U.S. And that spans from 1900 to the present, but most of that is post-1980.

SHAPIRO: And why do many people believe that that is an undercount?

LUCCHESI: Well, because it's so difficult to find this data. You know, we're experts. We've been doing this for years, and we still struggle daily. There's all sorts of issues with racial misclassification and records, misclassification of cases, you know, as exposure or accidental. And many cases just don't go documented at all.

SHAPIRO: Why are indigenous women so often victimized in this way?

LUCCHESI: We live in a culture that teaches people that it's OK to use and abuse Native women. Regardless of what generation you come from, there's been movies like "Peter Pan," now we have "Twilight" or "Hostel," all of those movies teach people to sexualize indigenous women and that indigenous women are just kind of there and ready for the taking with no consequences.

SHAPIRO: No consequences because law enforcement jurisdictions make it more difficult to prosecute some of these crimes. Is that right?

LUCCHESI: Exactly. So these media representations teach people that it's OK to use and abuse native women, and then the law enforcement and justice systems back that up by not holding people accountable.

SHAPIRO: Canada has clearly taken this issue very seriously. Do you see any similar movement among government officials in the United States?

LUCCHESI: We are seeing some positive changes here in the U.S. in terms of an increased interest by policymakers to address this issue. And I'm hoping that that will manifest in similarly positive changes in the Violence Against Women Act as well as passing Savanna's Act.

Beyond those immediate steps, the best way we can solve this issue is by respecting the sovereignty of tribal nations. If we have someone from France come here on vacation, and they go missing or they're murdered, it's not French jurisdiction, but France is still notified and brought to the table. But for some reason, when someone from a tribal nation goes missing or is murdered, there is no respect for that national sovereignty in the same way there is for other countries. That needs to change immediately.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think Canada is so far ahead of the U.S. on this?

LUCCHESI: You know, I think the reason that Canada has an inquiry is because indigenous women and family members have been fighting for an inquiry for decades. Here in the U.S., we're working hard to catch up. And it's been really beautiful to see over the last couple years our communities, not just Native folks but all sorts of people, get increasingly involved in this issue.

SHAPIRO: Annita Lucchesi is the executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute. Thanks for speaking with us today.

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