A group of Native American women kicked off a motorcycle tour carrying four ribbon skirts representing missing and murdered Indigenous women in Phoenix on Thursday afternoon.
Organized by the Medicine Wheel Ride, it’s the start of a journey across the nation over the next year to build awareness and support around unsolved crimes involving kidnapping, sex trafficking, domestic violence and murder of Native women and girls.
Members of the Medicine Wheel Ride and the Phoenix Indian Center gathered at the “No More Stolen Sisters” mural near Roosevelt and First streets, which has become a symbol of the movement.
The Phoenix Indian Center presented the four ribbon skirts and donated 100 bandannas reading “No more stolen relatives” to be passed out at their destination, International Female Ride Day in San Diego on Saturday.
The Diné Urban Voices, a performance group that sings in Navajo, sang a blessing for the group before they took off.
Phoenix Indian Center CEO Patti Hibbeler, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said the ribbon skirts are in the colors of the four directions, decorated with the beauty of Mother Earth bringing them blessings for their rides. The skirts will be taken on every ride this year and decorated with ribbons adorned with the names of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“The skirts are really a depiction of women,” said Hibbeler, and a reminder of beauty, humility and connection to Mother Earth.
Bikes tie ribbons with names of victims to motorcycles
Medicine Wheel Riders are a grassroots group blending a passion for riding motorcycles with a message of awareness for missing and murdered indigenous women. Members are from all over the country. About six bikers gathered with the crowd near the mural outside the Churchill on Thursday afternoon.
Red ribbons carrying the names of missing and murdered Indigenous women were tied to each motorcycle.
Shelly Denny, the founder of the Medicine Wheel Riders, explained some are personal and others are suggested by people who want to honor a victim.
Lavinia Yonnie tied a ribbon to her motorcycle for Jamie Yazzie, a Navajo woman who went missing in June 2019. Yonnie met the family of Yazzie last year to hear their story.
“They just felt like they were backed into a corner with no answers,”she said.
The Medicine Wheel Ride created T-shirts, raised funds to increase the reward for finding Yazzie and sponsored a billboard with her name on it.
Every ride is emotional and powerful, Yonnie said, and a way to bring hope to families missing loved ones.
Rising concern for missing and murdered Indigenous people
Red is the color of the movement because, “you almost can’t ignore it. You can’t not see it,” explained Denny, who is Ojibwe. Some Native Americans also say red is the color the spirit world sees.
The group is also carryinga red Navajo jingle dress. The maker told Denny that Navajo peopleonly wear red during wartime.
“I think that this is a little bit of a war that’s happening with this epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Denny said.
In 2016, there were 5,712 cases reported of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute, but only 116 cases were logged in the U.S. Department of Justice database.
“On top of that … there’s not a coordinated network to help track these women down and solve these problems,” said Patty Dimitriou, a Medicine Wheel Rider.
She explained part of that comes from a question of jurisdiction because of border and sovereignty issues between tribal nations, municipalities or the FBI.
“Whose problem is this? And quite honestly, it’s everyone’s problem,” Dimitriou said.
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Medicine Wheel Riders founder Shelly Denny said she began hearing a growing number of grotesque stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Denny realized everyone knew of a missing relative, friend, co-worker or schoolmate.
“It’s starting to become a bit expected,” Danny said, as grassroots movements began sprouting in Canada around the issue and trickled into the U.S.
Denny decided to build a community and effort around the cause and created the Medicine Wheel Riders. She hopes as the group offers support and help in communities, it plants a seed for others to create their own events, and even to ask the Riders for help.
Plans to honor missing and murdered Indigenous people on May 5
In 2019, the Medicine Wheel Riders also completed a journey across North America in the shape of the medicine wheel.
Denny, who has been riding motorcycles since the age of 19, said motorcycles are a way to decompress and relieve stress from the PTSD many Indigenous women endure. Women on motorcycles also seem to grab attention and it creates an opportunity for discussion. At their core, they’re also a group of women who happen to like riding motorcycles and helping their communities, she explained.
On Saturday, the Medicine Wheel Ride will be in San Diego for International Female Ride Day, which will happen during Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Awareness Week, to celebrate both events.
They will also be stopping in Yuma to meet with the Quechan tribal council and ride through the reservation for support.
They return to Phoenix for National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girlson May 5. A study on the issue in Arizona will be presented, and a prayer vigil will be held at dusk as the Arizona Capitol is lit up in red.
The group will also be taking the ribbon skirts to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August in Sturgis, South Dakota. After attending last year, the rally formally invited them for 2021, and they will be hosting a program sponsored by the Crazy Horse Memorial.
“Every tribe, every urban area across the country is dealing with these issues,” said Hibbeler. “You have to create awareness so you can create change. And we’re in the awareness phase right now.”