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Red Ribbon Skirt Society supports families of the murdered and missing

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Sharon Brings Plenty’s daughter was murdered in October 2020. Tessa Curley was 34 when she was stabbed to death. The investigation is still ongoing. Curley was a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

The Red Ribbon Skirt Society, based out of Rapid City, works to prevent the murder and disappearance of Native American women through education, support of families, awareness and monitoring the status laws meant to combat the issue. The society has given Brings Plenty a place to work through the pain of losing her daughter and not knowing who is responsible.

Brings Plenty knew something was wrong when Curley hadn’t contacted her for a few days, and she usually texted back. She initially thought her daughter may have relapsed from her three years of sobriety, but she just had a gut feeling that something was wrong.

“She was murdered at her home in Box Elder,” Brings Plenty said. “I had to be the one to discover her. That’s why it’s still hard for me.”

After her daughter's death, Brings Plenty got in touch with Lily Mendoza, founder of the Red Ribbon Skirt Society. Mendoza helped organize a ceremony for the family, and Brings Plenty is involved with the society to this day. She’s shared her story publicly to raise awareness.

Talking about her daughter and attending healing ceremonies led by the group’s spiritual leader, Darla Black, has helped her move forward with her grief. Even though she lives with not knowing who killed her daughter, Brings Plenty said she thinks of how much harder it must be for the families of the missing.

“They don’t know if their loved one is still alive. It’s gotta be three times worse is what I keep saying and what the feelings that I’m going through. I just wanted to get her story out there so that it doesn’t really happen to another Tessa person,” Brings Plenty said.

Several studies show Native American women are more likely to experience violence, sexual assault or to be murdered than other groups. According to a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) study, 84.3% of Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetime. Just over 56% have experienced sexual violence.

The murder rate for Native American women living on reservations is 10 times higher than the national average for women and is the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of the 105 missing people in South Dakota, 73 of them are Native American.

Mendoza, a Lakota woman living in Rapid City, founded the Red Ribbon Skirt Society in 2016. She had lost a son before that and founded the Shamus Project Inc. Mendoza said the project was to keep herself and her children busy to pull them out of their grief. They organized bike rides in memory of her son.

After opening her bookstore, the Bird Cage in downtown Rapid City, Mendoza began to research the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement.

“My first thought was, how are the families dealing with this?” Mendoza said. “That was really important to me because having lost a child, I was understanding that grief when you lose a child. So I just began to contact families, and I started to search on Facebook because everybody’s on Facebook.”

Mendoza said one woman she spoke to in the early days of her reaching out told her a story that is now familiar: When someone passes away, everyone gathers, and then they go away. The women of the society try to take away that isolation.

“Then you’re left there with that grief by yourself, and how are you gonna deal with that?” Mendoza said.

The bookstore now houses a healing room where families can pray, leave offerings and pin their loved ones’ names to red dresses. According to Lakota custom, red is the only color that spirits can see.

“I wrote (Tessa’s name) on cloth and we put it up on the red dress. Her name hangs up there with all the other names that have gone missing or murdered, and that really touches my heart,” Brings Plenty said.

Mary Black Bonnet is a member and intern at the Red Ribbon Skirt Society. She’s a part of a group within the society called Completing the Circle that works with families to prevent children from going missing. Anywhere from 600 to 700 children go missing each year in Rapid City, according to local law enforcement — most of which are found.

“What I do is try to work with the families to get to the core of the issue. Is this a kid issue or is this a family issue? It is both? I also try to connect them with community resources that we have, so bringing them back into that Indigenous circle of reconnecting with their roots,” Black Bonnet said.

The society also presents at schools and conferences and works with law enforcement. Mendoza’s son is an investigator in Rapid City.

“We can’t do this work alone. It’s taken six years to get to the point where we actually have a partnership with Rapid City law enforcement. They’re involved in our activities that we do. They really are aware of MMIW, so we have a couple of key people we work with over there,” Mendoza said.

The Rapid City Police Department’s community relations specialist, Brendyn Medina, said that Red Ribbon Skirt Society is a resource to families of missing people as well as a resource to the department.

“There are those out there that don’t have a trust for law enforcement or there’s a stigma of working with the police. This organization is one that can take information from somebody that might not want to provide information to police,” Medina said.

The Red Ribbon Skirt Society’s work spans from Rapid City to Minneapolis, where Mendoza's daughter lives. They also attend schools to educate young people on how to protect themselves. Mendoza said they're working with an organization to train communities how to conduct organized search and rescue missions. 

"We are all recovering from something," Mendoza said. "If we look at our Lakota people and our Native people, a lot of them are recovering, trying to recover from trauma. That's really what this is about." 

— Contact Shalom Baer Gee at sgee@rapidcityjournal.com — 

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