The tribe is grappling with a crisis over missing women along the California coast
YUROK RESERVATION, Calif. – The young mother had behaved erratically for months, hitchhiking and wandering naked through two Native American reservations and a small town clustered along California’s rugged Lost Coast North.
Next, Emmilee Risling was charged with arson for starting a fire in a cemetery.
Her family hoped the case would force her to seek mental health and addiction services. Instead, she was released at the request of her relatives and a tribal police chief.
The 33-year-old college graduate – an accomplished traditional dancer with an ancestry from three tribes – was last seen shortly after, walking across a bridge near a spot marked End of Road, a remote corner of the reservation of Yurok where the rutted sidewalk dissolves into the thick woods.
Her disappearance is one of five cases in 18 months in which Indigenous women have gone missing or been killed in this isolated stretch of Pacific coast between San Francisco and Oregon, an area where Yurok, Hupa, Karuk peoples , Tolowa and Wiyot have co-existed for millennia.
Two other women died from what authorities say were overdoses, although relatives have questions about the severe bruising they had.
The crisis prompted the Yurok Tribe to issue an emergency declaration and added urgency to efforts to create California’s first database of such cases and regain sovereignty over key services.
“I came to this question as a researcher and a learner, but in the last year I knew three of the women who disappeared or were murdered – and we have so much in common,” said Blythe George, a member of the Yurok tribe who consult on a project document the problem. “You can’t help but see yourself in these people.”
The recent cases highlight an epidemic that is difficult to quantify but has long disproportionately plagued Native Americans.
A 2021 report by a congressional watchdog revealed that the true number of missing and murdered Indigenous women is unknown due to reporting issues, high levels of distrust of law enforcement, and jurisdictional disputes.
But Indigenous women face murder rates nearly three times higher than white women overall – and up to 10 times the national average in some places, according to a 2021 study. summary of existing research by the National Congress of American Indians. And more than 80% have suffered violence.
In this region dotted with illegal marijuana farms and defined by wilderness, almost everyone knows someone who has gone missing.
Posters of missing persons float on gas station doors and street signs. Even the chief of the tribal police is not spared: he took in the daughter of a missing woman, and Emmilee – a registered member of the Hoopa Valley tribe with Yurok and Karuk blood – took care of her children.
In California alone, the Yurok Tribe and the Sovereign Bodies Institute, an Indigenous-led research and advocacy group, have uncovered 18 cases of Native American women missing or killed in the past year or so — a number that ‘they consider a vast undercount. An estimated 62% of those cases are not listed in state or federal missing persons databases.
Citizen Hupa Brandice Davis went to school with the daughters of a woman who disappeared in 1991 and now has daughters of her own aged 9 and 13.
“Here we are all connected, in a way,” she said of a place where many families are tied together through marriage or community ties.
Davis warns her daughters about what it means to be female, Native American and growing up on a reservation: “You are a statistic. But we must continue. We have to show people that we are still here.
As often happens in cases involving Aboriginal women, Risling’s disappearance received little attention from the outside world.
But many here see in its story the horrifying intersection of generations of trauma inflicted on Native Americans by their white colonizers, the marginalization of Indigenous peoples, and the lack of authority of tribal law enforcement over many crimes committed on their land.
Virtually all of the area’s native residents, including Risling, have ancestors who were sent to boarding schools as children and forced to give up their language and culture as part of a federal assimilation campaign.
Further back, the Yurok spent years away from home as indentured servants for the colonizers, according to Abby Abinanti, the tribe’s chief justice.
The trauma caused by these evictions resonates among the Yurok in the form of drug addiction and domestic violence, which trickles down to young people, Abinanti said. About 110 Yurok children are in foster care.
“You say, ‘OK, how did we get to this situation where we’re losing our children?’ ” she said. “There were big gaps in knowledge, including parenting, and these play out generationally.”
An analysis of the cases by the Yurok and sovereign bodies revealed that most of the missing women in the region had themselves been placed in foster care or had children taken from them by the state.
An analysis of jail bookings also showed that citizens of Yurok in the two-county region are 11 times more likely to go to jail within a year – and half of those arrested are women, typically for low-level crimes. intensity. That’s an arrest rate for Yurok women about five times the national incarceration rate for women, according to George, University of California sociologist Merced consulting the tribe.
The Yurok run a Tribal Drug Welfare Court and operate one of the only programs in the country for state-certified tribal domestic violence perpetrators. They also recently hired a tribal prosecutor, another step toward building an indigenous justice system that would ultimately deal with all but the most serious crimes.
The Yuroks are also working to regain foster care supervision and hope to transfer their first foster home from state court within months, said Jessica Carter, director of the Yurok Tribal Court. A tribally run guardianship court is following 50 other children who live with relatives.
The long-term plan – mostly funded by grants – is a massive undertaking that will take years to accomplish.
But the Yurok see regaining sovereignty over these systems as the only way to end the cycle of loss that has cost their women the most.
“If we’re successful, we can use this as a giveaway to other tribes to say, ‘Here are the steps we’ve taken,'” said Rosemary Deck, the new tribal prosecutor. “’You can take this as a plan and assert your own sovereignty.’ ”