How These Filmmakers Got a Motorcycle Group Riding for Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women to Trust Them

"We have a role to play here to end violence in Indian country and across our country," Prairie Rose Seminole told Jezebel of her and Katrina Sorrentino's short film, We Ride for Her.

How These Filmmakers Got a Motorcycle Group Riding for Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women to Trust Them

Every year, over half a million people gather in Sturgis, South Dakota for a ten-day motorcycle rally—the largest in the United States. There, among the masses of confederate flag-wielding white men, is an Indigenous motorcycle group of women and femmes called the Medicine Wheel Riders, who’ve been traveling the 1,200 miles from Phoenix, Arizona to Sturgis every year since 2018. Their purpose? To bring national awareness to the countless missing and murdered Indigenous women who disappear or are killed at 10 times the national average.

For those riding, like Lorna Cuny, a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe from South Dakota and Co-Chair and Co-Founder of the Medicine Wheel Ride, this crisis is personal.

“The medicine wheel ride is medicine for us, for the families that we are able to help,” Cuny explains in We Ride For Her, a new short film directed by filmmaker Katrina Sorrentino and advocate, Praire Rose Seminole, who documented the group’s ride in 2022. Cuny, of course, isn’t the only rider with a story to share.

“I remember standing in the middle of a field calling the Rapid City police department asking them to please call me back because I wanted to report my sister Susan missing, but I didn’t get a call back,” Heather Taken Alive recalls in the film’s opening, which premiered at South by Southwest in March. “We didn’t know where to start.”

Since 2018, the Medicine Wheel Riders have offered community to women like Lorna, Heather, and countless others. It’s a space to mourn but also to celebrate the memory of women who are so much more than a nameless, faceless statistic.

Over Zoom, Jezebel spoke with Sorrentino and Seminole about how the film came to be, why gaining their subjects’ trust didn’t come until the cameras stopped rolling, and what role their audience can play in helping to end the crisis. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

JEZEBEL: Tell me about the genesis for the film.

Katrina Sorrentino: We Ride For Her started because Red Sand Project, which is an anti-human trafficking nonprofit, reached out to me. I’ve been working as a documentary filmmaker in the anti-human trafficking space for over a decade now and they wanted to make a doc about one of their community partners who were focused on indigenous rights and indigenous activism at the time. We weren’t trying to make an anti-human trafficking film, so to speak, but we asked them what the most pressing need is in their community right now and they said the missing and murdered indigenous women. Once we knew that was what we’d be focusing on, we started looking for people who could carry a story around it. Then, once we found the riders, we knew we had found our participants. We wanted to take on this topic in a way that didn’t re-traumatize survivors but engender hope in a really dark, dark subject matter.

Speaking of, what was the most difficult part of the process?

Prairie Rose Seminole: It was about a year into the relationship building that we filmed on location in Sturgis and even then, we didn’t have all the trust with every rider. But by the time we got into the editing process, we had built some incredible trust because of our transparency, communication, and intentionality around being trauma-informed. We’re very intentional as filmmakers not to cause harm. We did everything we could to mitigate that and even developed our own trauma-informed filmmaking practices.

Ultimately, how do you gain that trust? 

KS: All my previous experience in documentary-making and learning what not to do…specifically, [not] being on teams that in order to gain access, might not be transparent because they think, “Oh, in order to gain access, I might have to withhold some information.” What that creates internally is this power dynamic between the filmmakers and the participants, which I think will ultimately always end up in chaos.

I remember two weeks before we were supposed to be in North Dakota, we got a call from Heather and she had changed her mind. She was like, “I don’t want to be a part of this anymore. I’m thinking about having my image out there and my name and I just don’t want to be a part of it.” And we sat with that for 24 hours and then we were just like, “Are you open to getting on the phone with us so we can hear how you’re feeling?” By making space for her to externally process, we realized that she actually did want to do it from a value alignment perspective but she was just nervous about the actual filmmaking process and having her image be on screen and just all the pre-filming jitters. It was great that she ended up deciding to continue, but had she cancelled we, as filmmakers would have just had to get creative about like, “OK how do we deal with this?” For me, people seeing how we had told their story and receiving feedback from some of the women like, “Hey, you told our story in a way that actually honors us and that we’re proud of,” that’s when I felt like we had succeeded.

What’s reception been like? Have you noticed any differences in native versus non-native audiences?

PRS: As an indigenous person, moving through the emotions that the film brings you through and getting that consent at the end of the day—and often through ceremony and song and like, real embracing—it just was absolutely beautiful to be a part of because this is collective grief, and communities showing up for one another was absolutely beautiful. To have our world premiere at SXSW with many who’ve never been exposed to this crisis or even know it was an issue…we had some incredible feedback. I just was always looking around during our world premiere—I mean, it’s 18 minutes long—but to see people get emotional around the issue and to take that journey with us, it was almost as if I was doing the film for the first time again. We’ve seen this film 1,000 times but to see it with a whole new audience, mostly non-native was a beautiful experience. To be able to shine a light on this issue with a new audience…I think that’s what the film festival world allows us to do, which is create a call to action. We have a role to play here to end violence in Indian country and across our country. So, how do we do that together?

I imagine there were some heavy moments for you both. How did you manage your own mental health and well-being during production?

KS: I’ve been on set since I was 18. Well, actually even before that. I’ve always felt I’ve been someone who’s chronically struggled with hypersensitivity and autoimmune conditions, and I’ve always felt as though I have to hide my lack of ableism especially in the field that I work in. It’s gotten me into some weird holes where I feel judged if I can’t like, stay up as late or push my body as far as some people can. I used to work with a lot of colleagues who would get four hours of sleep and be fine, and I would be destroyed. I wanted to try something different on this set. When I was crafting the schedule, I was like, “OK, this day is going to be a longer day but on this day, we could take a nap in the afternoon.” I curated the schedule around my own struggles and we would have emotional check-ins at the beginning and the end of every day. I had an onboarding with every crew member I brought on, and I was like, “I want to know what your triggers and sensitivities are. I want you to know that if you need to take a break and you need to rest, communicate that.” We had naps and downtime during the days on set, which is pretty unheard of. I’ve always wanted permission from leadership when I’m on set like, “Hey, you can close your eyes in the car and take a 10-minute nap. I’ve been in rural India with a camera on my back for 17 hours a day and if someone had told me “If you need a 15-minute nap, you will not be judged,” I probably would have been able to get through the day a lot better.

PS: I’m somewhat the opposite. I come from a community that knows intense grief well. During the interview process, I think it was incredibly helpful that our executive producer allowed us a space to develop some common filmmaking practices of our own. We hired some incredible therapists and developed some practices that when we’re on set and we’re interviewing folks that will have a safe word or gesture that allows us to talk and take that space to end the conversation. We put those in place because we wanted, again, to not cause harm and mitigate any harmful practices that documentary filmmaking might cause. As Katrina mentioned, the process is invasive and we didn’t want to exploit any of that.

I’m kind of extroverted when needed, but I’m introverted most of the time. Katrina and our crew are a lot younger than me, so they had their own practices and community providing space for one another. For me, I had to check out. Like, “OK, we’re done filming for the day? I’m going to go be by myself.” I’m incredibly proud of the work that we did and how we really invested that time into developing not just procedures, but modeling care for one another.

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