Three women sat around a table at the back of the Racing Magpie art galleries in Rapid City last week, creating red felt pins in the shape of women wearing dresses.
The women are part of the Red Ribbon Skirt Society, a Rapid City group dedicated to raising awareness about missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW), children, two-spirited and transgender people.
Movements to raise awareness about MMIW began among indigenous communities in Canada several years ago and soon spread to the United States with marches, temporary art exhibits and newspaper articles highlighting the crisis. New legislation has been introduced or passed to enhance data collection about MMIW and improve the rate of solving such cases.
But the Rapid City healing center at Racing Magpie — a cozy but somber room filled with an altar, map of MMIW from South Dakota, names of MMIW attached to dresses, a memorial book, and chairs for people to reflect in — appears to be the first permanent space dedicated to the MMIW movement in the United States.
"Really what it offers is a space for community, families of the victims, to be able to have space where they can actually go, and they can pray and they can heal," said Lily Mendoza, who helped found the healing center and Red Ribbon Skirt Society.
Mendoza, a 61-year-old from Rapid City, said the space is especially helpful for family of those who went missing but haven't been found.
"At least families can go somewhere to pray and feel that maybe their presence may be there or their spirit is there to help them through that process," she said.
In some counties, Native American women face murder rates more than 10 times the national average, according to a 2008 study funded by the Department of Justice. But there is incomplete data collection and media coverage about MMIW, according to a 2018 study by Urban Indian Health Institute.
For example, while the National Crime Information Center reported 5,712 missing Native women and girls in 2016, the Department of Justice's federal missing persons database listed only 116 cases, the study found.
The Red Ribbon Skirt Society is an indigenous-led group modeled after traditional Lakota societies, where youth, men, women and elders gathered in societies based on their skills, said Mary Black Bonnet, a 42-year-old from Rapid City.
Members of the group meet weekly to work on projects, plan upcoming events, and continue educating themselves about MMIW. Last Thursday, they made pins with MMIW information sheets attached to them to send to American and Canadian women participating in a an upcoming motorcycle ride to raise awareness about the issue.
They also read articles about Candace Rough Surface, an 18-year-old from the Standing Rock Reservation who was raped and murdered in 1980, but whose case was only solved in 1995. The group said they plan to reach out to Homer Rough Surface, Candace's son, who told the Aberdeen American News that he was never alerted to parole hearings for his mother's killer, who was recently granted parole.
"That's the great thing about all of this is getting to tell the families and the relatives we see you and we support you and we validate you," Black Bonnet said of why it's important to reach out to loved ones of MMIW.
In February, the group attached the names of MMIW to dresses and displayed them outside the Journey museum. They found families of MMIW traveled to the installation where they created a temporary, impromptu healing space by praying at the site and leaving prayer offerings, Mendoza said.
That inspired the group to create the permanent healing space, which opened March 29.
"Some of the families felt like their child, their mother, their whoever, had been forgotten and so I felt that we needed to make sure that they weren't," Mendoza said.
Now loved ones can view their relatives' names in a book or on dresses at the healing space, leave an offering on the altar, or just sit and reflect, she said.
Those without connections to MMIW, such as 33-year-old Walt Leinen, are also welcome in the healing space.
"It's very powerful," said Leinen, who stopped by Racing Magpie last Thursday after recently moving back to Rapid City.
"When I was growing up there was a very different dynamic about racial relations in Rapid City, so it's nice to see this kind of stuff being confronted and talked about and addressed in multiple ways," he said.
The healing space and Red Ribbon Skirt Society are also inclusive to two spirit and transgender people, said society member Carla Douglas.
They're some of the first non-LGBT focused groups or spaces that "actually acknowledge the two spirit, transgender women as an equal part, that even our lives matter," she said.
Douglas, a transgender woman, said trans people can be considered "throwaways" by society, and when they go missing or are killed, police sometimes share their wrong gender with the media while unsupportive families may bury them under their old name.
Douglas, Black Bonnet and Mendoza don't have any close friends or family members who are MMIW, but Mendoza said she learned of two distant relatives after she began working on the issue.
She said she learned that her mother's first cousin and her second cousin's grandma both went missing and were found murdered years later.
"Back then, they just didn't talk about it," Mendoza said.
She said after her second cousin visited the display at the Journey Museum, she brought a sage bundle back to her 90-year-old father, who said he felt closure and now keeps the sage by his chair.
Victims' relatives say "everybody's there when there's the funeral, everybody's there when its all happening, and then people go away and you never hear support anymore," Mendoza said.
"When all the dust clears, we're still standing there," Black Bonnet said of the Red Ribbon Skirt Society and healing space.
Those interested in getting involved with the society are invited to attend the group's meetings at 3 p.m. on Thursdays. The MMIW healing center is open Tuesday-Saturday from noon-5 p.m. at Racing Magpie, 406 5th Street in Rapid City.
— Contact Arielle Zionts at email@example.com.
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