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Red Ribbon Skirt Society
In 2017, Lily Mendoza, a member of the
Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, along with
others, founded the Red Ribbon Skirt Society
(RRSS) in Rapid City, South Dakota, to
support families of missing and murdered
Indigenous women, children, and two-spirit individuals. The Society meets at Mendoza's Bird Cage Book Store, which features works by Native American and women writers.
On March 29, 2019, the Society founded a center for healing, prayer, and remembrance at the Racing Magpie Art Gallery in Rapid City. The healing center displays red dresses which bear the names of the 70 known “officially” Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in South Dakota. Additionally, the center's Red Book contains the names of 5000 documented MMIW in the United States, with entries being updated as necessary.
Mendoza took it upon herself to educate herself about the effect the loss and uncertainty about their missing family members had on parents, siblings, and other people close to the women. When she reachd out to those family members, she found that they were grieving in silence.
“When I started contacting those families, the response was that nobody had asked them about their stolen sister, daughter,” Mendoza said during an interview with Indian Country Today on April 6, 2019. She went on to say that just by her listening and the speaking of the woman's name was “very healing for the families.”
One major cause of MMIW is thought to be trafficking, since I-90 in South Dakota, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and other summer events, along with man camps, are places where abductions occur.
Human trafficking is an epidemic, according to MMIW advocates, and experts encourage being aware of and listening to what is going on around us. They urge being open with each other and communication within the home.
“You need to let your children know that, no matter what they have to tell you, it's going to be safe,” said Mary War Bonnet , co-founder of the RRSS.
“We want to tell the community that this crisis is real,” Mendoza said. “It has happened to our women as far back as the 1900s; it's current and happening today and could happen to anyone.”
Earlier this year, the South Dakota legislature passed by-partisan Senate Bill 164, directed at solving some of the disappearances.
“ENTITLED, An Act to establish procedures for the investigation of certain missing and murdered indigenous persons.
BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA:
Section 1. That § 23-3-18.1 be amended to read:
23-3-18.1. The director of the Division of Criminal Investigation shall prepare guidelines and uniform procedures for the reporting of and investigation of missing persons, including missing and murdered indigenous women and children, and runaways. The director shall distribute the guidelines to law enforcement agencies within the state.
The director of the Division of Criminal Investigation shall establish training programs for law enforcement personnel regarding the conduct of investigations into missing persons, including missing and murdered indigenous women and children, and the provision of runaway assistance.
Section 2. That chapter 23-3 be amended by adding a NEW SECTION to read:
The Division of Criminal Investigation shall collect data and share information on missing and murdered indigenous persons in cooperation with similar divisions, bureaus, or departments of other states, tribal governments or law enforcement agencies, county or municipal governments and law enforcement agencies, the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the U.S. Department of the Interior, or the Bureau of Investigation of the U.S. Department of Justice.
An Act to establish procedures for the investigation of certain missing and murdered indigenous persons.”
When contacted for comment, Mendoza replied, “Our group has been talking [about] this, and [wondering] if there has been any talks about beginning the work, since it is now law. We don’t think so. (Writer's emphasis) So our organization has requested to meet with the DCI [Department of Criminal Investigation] to what protocols are in place and how as community members we can be involved in the process. This is really all we have for now “
The consensus seems to be that the legislation has no teeth, although Governor Kristi Noem was eager to sign it, which accounts for Mendoza's trepidation. Advocates urge for an on-line data base, where all agencies can communicate with each other.
From South Dakota Public Radio, May 2, 2019:
“Members of the Red Ribbon Skirt Society gathered around the microphones in SDPB's Black Hills Studio to remember stolen sisters. They are reading the names of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two Spirited. These are people from our region whose disappearances or deaths have never been solved. “ (Writer's note: Anna Mae Acquash was found murdered in the Stronghold area of the Badlands during the AIM uprising in the 1980s. Someone was subsequently convicted of that murder years later. The rumor was that she was an FBI informant.)
Learn more about the Red Ribbon Skirt Society at