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‘We have to be visible': Medicine Wheel Ride takes MMIW to Sturgis

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Medicine Wheel Riders pose at the Sturgis motorcycle rally. The group aims to bring awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

Every summer, hundreds of thousands of riders, locals and tourists, flock to Sturgis, South Dakota, for its famous 10-day motorcycle rally.

Many who attend are white men.

But this year, and for the last two years, there will be at least 200 Indigenous riders, participating in a Medicine Wheel Ride to raise awareness for the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic.

The FBI’s National Crime Information Center in 2021 reported 5,203 missing Indigenous women, though experts say the numbers are likely higher.  

Lorna Cuny, who is Oglala Lakota, co-founded the Medicine Wheel Ride group. Cuny said the organization worked with Sturgis Mayor Mark Carstensen to declare the first Sunday of the rally a missing and murdered Indigenous women awareness day. This year, the Medicine Wheel Ride will begin at 8 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 7. Riders will travel more than 70 miles from Bear Butte State Park to the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Cuny grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation and now lives in Rapid City.

“For me, being local, growing up around here, and seeing the rally, it’s like, why shouldn’t we be here?” she said. “We have to be visible. We deserve to take up space at this huge rally. We love motorcycles, too. We want to make sure our women are safe, our communities are safe, and that the Indigenous people who live here are acknowledged.”

Each rider pays $40 to register for the Medicine Wheel Ride, and local businesses sponsor the event. The organization uses the funds raised to help Native families search for their loved ones, acquire billboards to raise awareness, pay for funeral expenses or gas money, among other things. The group helped send searchers to the Blackfeet Reservation in June to help look for Arden Pepion, 3, who was last seen in April 2021.

Cuny said Sturgis attendees have been “really receptive” to the Medicine Wheel Ride and mission.

“A lot of people tell us they didn’t realize this was a problem,” she said. “Especially at an event like Sturgis, we have to let people outside our own communities know this is an issue.”

Cuny said Sturgis is a great venue to get the word out not just because it’s a large gathering of people, but also because there have been sex trafficking incidents at past rallies.

Last year, a child sex trafficking sting at the rally resulted in nine arrests, and in 2020, eight men were charged with sex crimes at the rally.

Research from the National Congress of American Indians in 2018 found that more than half of Native American women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime; Native women are almost twice as likely to have experienced rape compared with white women, and Native women are almost three times as likely to be murdered when compared with their white counterparts.

Cuny said some Native women joined her group after losing a loved one to violence, and some women joined after escaping domestic abuse.

For Cuny, riding motorcycles makes her feel free.

“It’s empowering to feel like I can do this,” she said. “It’s freeing. It’s not something that looking back 10 years ago, I thought I’d be doing. I’m a mother, I’m a wife … but I’ve always felt daring.”

To learn more or support the Medicine Wheel Ride, visit medicinewheelride.org.

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