Every summer, hundreds of thousands of riders, locals and tourists flock to Sturgis, South Dakota, for the famous 10-day motorcycle rally.
Many in attendance are white males.
But this year, and for the past two years, at least 200 Indigenous riders will participate in a Medicine Wheel Ride to raise awareness for the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The FBI’s National Crime Information Center reported 5,203 missing indigenous women in 2021, although experts say the number is likely higher.
Lorna Cuny, Oglala Lakota, co-founded the Medicine Wheel Ride group. Cuny said the organization was working with Sturgis mayor Mark Carstensen to declare the first Sunday of the rally a day to raise awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women. This year, the Medicine Wheel Ride starts on Sunday, August 7 at 8 a.m. Riders will travel more than 70 miles from Bear Butte State Park to Crazy Horse Memorial.
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Cuny grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation and now lives in Rapid City.
“To me, because I’m local, growing up 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 on this massive rally. We also like motorcycles. We want to make sure that our women are safe, our communities are safe and that the indigenous people who live here are recognized.”
Each rider pays $40 to register for the Medicine Wheel Ride, and local businesses sponsor the event. The organization uses the money raised to help Indigenous families search for their loved ones, acquire billboards to raise awareness, pay for funeral expenses or gas money, among other things. The group helped searchers to the Blackfeet reservation in June to help search for Arden Pepion, 3, who was last seen in April 2021.
Cuny said Sturgis visitors were “really receptive” to the Medicine Wheel Ride and mission.
“A lot of people tell us they didn’t know this was a problem,” she said. “Especially at an event like Sturgis, we need to let people outside our own communities know that this is a problem.”
Cuny said Sturgis is a great place to get the news out, not only because it’s a large group of people, but also because there have been incidents of sex trafficking in the past.
Last year, a sting of child sex trafficking at the rally resulted in nine arrests, and in 2020, eight men were charged with sex offenses during the rally.
A 2018 National Congress of American Indians survey found that more than half of Native American women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime; Indigenous women are almost twice as likely to have experienced rape as compared to white women, and Indigenous women are almost three times more likely to be murdered compared to their white counterparts.
Cuny said some indigenous women joined her group after losing a loved one to violence, and some women joined her after escaping domestic violence.
For Cuny, riding a motorcycle gives her a feeling of freedom.
“It makes me feel like I can do this,” she says. “It’s liberating. It’s not something I thought I was doing 10 years ago. I am a mother, I am a wife … but I have always felt daring.”
For more information or to support the Medicine Wheel Ride, visit medicinewheelride.org.