A high-pitched song—a wail of pain and longing—sounded through the hot, dark air outside of Brookings, South Dakota, Monday night.
It was a cry for a peaceful journey to the spirit world for Kyla “Kyla Jo” Mercy Red Bear, a 25-year-old Native American woman who disappeared earlier this month. Red Bear’s body was found in a wooded area on Aug. 8, six days after she was last heard from.
The Monday night vigil was held near the spot where Red Bear’s body was found. Brookings, the home of South Dakota State University, the largest college in the Dakotas, is one of the most diverse towns in the state, and the crowd of more than 100 people reflected that. Native Americans from tribes across the state were joined by white and Black people who call Brookings home.
Red Bear’s parents, Jen Red Bear and Brandon LeBeau, attended the event and were met with hugs from relatives and friends.
Melanie His Law, of nearby Madison, was among the crowd. His Law, 25, said she and Red Bear were best friends who met while ice-skating as third-graders and talked every day.
Law enforcement has been tight-lipped about Red Bear’s death, not even using her name in the few brief statements that have been released of a recent death in Brookings County. But His Law is convinced a crime was committed.
“I think she was murdered,” she speculated. “My friend would not kill herself. She did not kill herself. She was murdered.”
The disappearance and death of Native American women across the country was a topic many people touched on as they gathered at a convenience store Monday night. The group then drove and walked a couple miles to the place where Red Bear’s body was found. Her death is the latest example of a troubling epidemic of loss, several people said.
His Law said she last talked to Red Bear around 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 2. Red Bear asked her friend to pick her up and allow her to stay with her and His Law said she would get her in a day or so when she returned from Rapid City, about 400 miles away on the other side of the state.
But His Law said she never heard from Red Bear again. His Law called and texted Red Bear and posted on social media, seeking some way to contact her. On Aug. 8, His Law learned Red Bear’s body had been discovered.
“She deserves justice,” she said. “I don’t want her swept under the rug.”
The Brookings County Sheriff’s Office and Brookings County State’s Attorney Dan Nelson have issued statements about a body found on the eastern edge of the city, but they have not identified the victim. The location listed is the same place where Red Bear’s body was found.
“The Brookings County Sheriff’s Office and South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation continue to investigate a death in Brookings County. All deaths are investigated thoroughly, and we want the public to know the investigation is ongoing,” Assistant Sheriff Scott Sebring said in a statement released on Aug. 18.
“Due to this, further details cannot be released at this time,” he added, while urging anyone with any information about the case to contact the Brookings County Sheriff’s Office or to contact Crimestoppers.
Nelson, meanwhile, reaffirmed the Brookings County State’s Attorney position in a statement released that same day.
“The Brookings County Sheriff’s Office, Brookings Police Department – SD, and the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation continue to pursue multiple leads in the investigation. Until those leads have been investigated, the facts and circumstances surrounding the decedent’s death will remain undisclosed. Our local law enforcement agencies remain diligently focused on these efforts.”
Nelson confirmed that forensic and digital evidence has been collected “and is currently under review. Due to the multiple leads in this investigation, additional time and resources are required to ensure a complete and thorough investigation. On behalf of all law enforcement, we appreciate your patience in this matter.”
On Monday, Nelson told The Daily Beast the investigation was ongoing and declined to confirm the identity of the deceased victim.
“It’s a current investigation that is ongoing,” Nelson said. “There has been public interest in it, I know. The sheriff and I have released our statements.”
He was aware of the vigil, but said he did not plan to attend it. When asked about rumors about Red Bear’s death, he said they would not disclose any facts or circumstances around it.
“I’m not going to comment on that,” Nelson said.
Lori Osterberg, 45, of Brookings, knew Red Bear well. Her son, AJ White, was the father of her two children, Anthony Joseph White IV and Zendeya. Osterberg said AJ was working in Mitchell, South Dakota, when Red Bear disappeared and when he came back to Brookings on Aug. 5 and could not locate her, he contacted authorities.
Tasha His Law of Crow Creek is Red Bear’s cousin. She recalled a person with a vibrant personality.
“She was very free-spirited,” Tasha His Law said. “She had a beautiful soul.”
Tasha His Law, who is an advocate for murdered and missing indigenous people, said law enforcement has been very open with the family, with Red Bear’s parents receiving regular updates from investigators, including Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Kevin Murfield.
“It’s early,” she said. “I think it’s early and her mom and dad, they hear from the detectives and investigators often, every other day.”
Erica Moore, a member of the Brookings Human Rights Commission, said the vigil was good for the family and community.
“I think it’s very much important for the family to have a space to grieve and a place for the community to come together,” Moore said.
The vigil was held on a sweltering night, after a day when temperatures approached triple-digits with high humidity that lingered after dark. Still, the ancient songs pierced the night and a steady drumbeat was sounded. A small boy carried a smudge pot through the crowd; a Lakota ritual to connect smoke and spirituality. Family members walked into the woods to gather at the spot where Red Bear’s body was found, while most people remained near an entrance.
As Circle Bear spoke about life, loss and love, wails of agony sounded from the woods. The Lakota elder said he understood the pain people were feeling.
“I read about this young lady and it broke my heart, for her to leave like that,” he said.