This feature from the October 2021 issue of our sister publication, Thunder Press, details a woman-led charity organization called the Medicine Wheel Ride. Riders join together to raise awareness for MMIWC, and they simultaneously honor the victims they ride for symbolically. This is a great read about the women in our community riding in an effort to help a cause that really matters.
The Medicine Wheel Ride is yet another way motorcyclists lend their time and efforts to worthy charity organizations. It’s an intertribal and female-led 503(c)(3) nonprofit charity organization that highlights a hidden crisis endured by Indigenous peoples.
The Medicine Wheel Ride calls attention to and raises awareness for the silent crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Children (MMIWC) on and off Native American reservations.
Recent news stories about unmarked graves of Indigenous children at boarding schools in Canada have shined a light on how Native North Americans were mistreated by governing bodies. As of August, the remains of 5,296 children previously categorized as missing have been found.
Violence against Indigenous people isn’t just a Canadian crisis or one rooted only in the distant past. In Montana, the Indigenous population is only 6.7%, but nearly 40% of the 189 active missing-persons cases are listed as Indigenous. On some reservations, women between the ages of 17-37 are murdered or disappear at a rate 10 times the national average.
Indigenous people, creating sound with loud pipes and strong voices, are silent no more as they speak out against this cycle of violence. “No More Stolen Sisters” and “Silent No More” are rallying cries for a movement that has grown dramatically in just three years.
The Medicine Wheel Ride raises funds and gives voices to the missing and abused. The riders are heavy with the weight of centuries of grief but are also empowered and hopeful as they assist families by holding events and rides to raise support.
“We started in 2018 as a women’s rider and social group,” said Shelly Denny, President of the Medicine Wheel Riders. “There were a bunch of us talking on the phone once a week about what we rode and other social things, but as our relationships developed, we began discussing more serious things.
“A woman in our group wanted to create a support event for the family of a missing toddler in the Four Corners area,” Denny continued. “She set out to create a search party and provide food for the family. It’s actually crazy how common an experience this is for native women.”
The group had planned to ride together and attend the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and the Gathering of Nations Powwow, but it grew when Denny and her sister riders published an invitation on social media, calling for friends and others to join in a ride more tightly focused on the issue weighing heavy on their hearts.
They planned their first Medicine Wheel Ride in 2019 over a route that took the shape of a medicine wheel, which is the story of life in a circle with lines divided into quadrants. These quadrants represent balance, the stages of life from birth to death, the four cardinal directions, and the sacred teachings associated with each of those directions.
“We wanted to ride a route in this shape and imbue this symbol on the map of Turtle Island, also known as North America,” explained Denny, who was raised near the Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation south of Bemidji, Minnesota.
A medicine wheel figure superimposed on North America passes through Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Two women from Winnipeg, Canada, completed the entire wheel, while others came from the four directions to meet at the Women’s Freedom Rally in Topeka, Kansas. Indigenous elders from New Mexico sent prayer bundles to riders at each of the four directional starting points, which riders carried to the rally.
In order to symbolically keep the names of MMIWC alive, Medicine Wheel Riders write the names of the missing and murdered on red ribbons, tying them to their motorcycles so they can fly in the wind.
Their efforts to make the silent crisis heard have not gone unnoticed. Patricia Hibbeler, CEO of the Phoenix Indian Center (the oldest Indian nonprofit organization of its kind in the U.S.), awarded the Medicine Wheel Ride its Volunteer Organization of the Year Award for Excellence in Leadership.
“The Medicine Wheel Riders are blessed women bikers, dedicated to paying homage to and raising awareness about MMIWC,” Hibbeler said. “We are honored to support and partner with them around this issue plaguing our American Indian Communities.”
Medicine Wheel Rides are women-led and grassroots-organized, and they make it clear they are open to all riders and others who help support the cause. My partner and I (non-Indigenous) joined a group of riders in May as we rode from Phoenix to San Diego to participate in the third Medicine Wheel Ride.
“We are Indigenous-led, but all are welcome,” said Denny, currently a Phoenix resident. “We are happy to have allies and supporters of any nationality, race, or sex.”
The San Diego ride drew a large gathering at the North County Indian dealership for the opening ceremonies, attracting 500 people and about 200 bikes. Attendees paused for prayers as smoke from burning sage accompanied bike blessings, testimonials, gifts, and greetings before throttling up on a 100-mile ride. Bikers roared upward from the city to the mountains with red ribbons waving their powerful testimony tied to Harley-Davidson iron and Indian steel.
Riders finished at Indian Motorcycle of San Diego, with closing events including heartbreaking stories from family members of the missing and murdered, as well as drum songs, bands, and a talk from Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA).
This August at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the Medicine Wheel Riders were the Mayor’s VIP guests (along with the Legion Riders) for Bike Week’s opening ceremonies on Friday night. On Sunday, the Medicine Wheel Ride took place, traveling Main Street in Sturgis toward the rally’s central locale and stage. Mark Carstensen, mayor of Sturgis, proclaimed the day as “The Sturgis Medicine Wheel Ride Day.”
The Medicine Wheel Ride then departed to Bear Butte, where South Dakota Indigenous leaders and supporters delivered prayers and comments. Riders finished off the ride at the Crazy Horse Memorial.
The Medicine Wheel Riders are relentless in taking advantage of motorcycles and their visibility to give voices to the silent, while at the same time energizing voices for change from the local level and on up to the national echelon.
“This is a crisis that’s been happening in our country since colonization, and it’s very, very deep,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said when the Sturgis rally began. The U.S. Department of the Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs published a bulletin calling for an investigation into the crisis and a call for nominations to join a newly established fact-finding commission.
Motorcycle riders have proven countless times that they are empathetic to the disadvantaged among us through their events dedicated to charitable causes.
The Medicine Wheel Ride puts resources to good work, using it to help families with gas money or other needs. They also purchased billboard space calling attention to the missing, and they donated gas and hotel room money when families had to travel to search for a missing family member or recover human remains. In two cases last year, they shared their gifts with a healing center and a women’s shelter in Rapid City, South Dakota.
“It’s a difficult subject to talk about and an important one,” Denny commented, “and it has to be done in a way that people can feel empowered by the talk. We can bond together, strengthen each other, support each other, and undo this crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people.”
Five hundred years of grief obscured in a shadow of silence is now a moving testament revved up on big bikes and finding its wheels. More information and details for future rides (San Diego and Sturgis) will be posted at MedicineWheelRide.com.