A California tribe faces the crisis of missing and murdered women

Maile Kane, 13, walks with her grandmother's dog, Charlie, outside her family's home on January 20, 2022, in Hoopa, California.  The girl's mother, Brandice Davis, said she grew up with Emmilee Risling and worried about her safety.  own daughters.  (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Maile Kane, 13, walks with her grandmother’s dog, Charlie, outside her family’s home on January 20, 2022, in Hoopa, California. The girl’s mother, Brandice Davis, said she grew up with Emmilee Risling and worried about her safety. own daughters. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)


The young mother had behaved erratically for months, hitchhiking and wandering naked through two Native American reservations and a small town clustered along Northern California’s rugged Lost Coast.

But things got out of hand when 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 university graduate – an accomplished traditional dancer with ancestry from three tribes in the region – was last seen shortly after crossing a bridge in a remote part of the Yurok reservation.

Her disappearance in October is one of five cases in the past 18 months where Indigenous women have gone missing or been killed in this isolated stretch of coastline between San Francisco and Oregon. The crisis prompted the Yurok Tribe to declare a state of emergency and added urgency to efforts to create California’s first comprehensive database of such cases.

“Just in the last year, I have known three of the women who have disappeared or been murdered – and we share so much in common,” said Blythe George, a Yurok citizen and assistant professor of sociology who helped document the problem. “You can’t help but see yourself in these people.”

The recent cases shed light on an epidemic that is difficult to quantify but has long been disproportionately plaguing Native Americans.

A 2021 report by a government watchdog found the true number of missing and murdered Indigenous women is unknown due to reporting issues, mistrust of law enforcement and jurisdictional disputes. . But Native American 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 summary of National Indian Congress research. from America. More than 80% have suffered violence.

Emmilee is an enrolled member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe who traces her ancestry to the Yurok and Karuk nations.

Many see in his story the horrifying intersection of the trauma inflicted on Native Americans by their white colonizers and their marginalization in a legal system established by European conquerors. His case shook the community but did not attract outside attention.

Virtually all of the area’s native residents, including Emmilee, have parents who were sent to boarding schools as children as part of a government assimilation campaign. This trauma resonates in the form of substance abuse and domestic violence that sends a disproportionate number of children into foster care, said Judge Abby Abinanti, Chief Judge of the Yurok Tribal Court.

An analysis by the Yurok and Sovereign Bodies Institute, an Indigenous-led research and advocacy group, found that most of the region’s missing Indigenous women had either been placed in foster care themselves or had been removed their children.

“You say, ‘OK, how did we get to this situation where we’re losing our children?’ Abinanti said. “There were big gaps in knowledge, including parenting, and these play out generationally.”

For years, Emmilee has been a source of pride for her family and the region, learning the dances that unite the community with generations of tradition.

Her family has the rare distinction of possessing enough regalia to be able to perform the group dances without borrowing any finery. At age 15, she traveled to Washington, DC, for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Emmilee attended the University of Oregon on a scholarship and helped lead a large group of Indigenous students. When she got pregnant, she had the baby and then graduated.

She then took a job at home working with underprivileged families and adored her son.

But over time, her family says, they noticed changes.

Emmilee arrived late for work and became combative, then fell in love with an abusive boyfriend. She gave birth to a daughter in 2020, but eventually lost custody of her two children.

Her parents, baffled by her rapid deterioration, believe she developed a mental illness made worse by drug use and domestic violence.

Emmilee was repeatedly arrested by sheriff’s deputies and tribal police, but was never charged, as she walked naked in public. The only inpatient psychiatric facility within a 300 mile (480 kilometer) radius was still full. Once she was taken to the emergency room and fled in her hospital gown.

“People tended to look away,” said Judy Risling, her mother. “There was just no service for her.”

In September, Emmilee was arrested after being found by a small fire in the Hoopa Valley Reservation cemetery.

Her family and the Hoopa Valley Tribe Police Chief asked a Humboldt County judge to keep her in custody and get her help, but she was released. Her public defender argued that she had no criminal convictions and could not be detained solely because of her mental state.

A few days later, Emmilee disappeared.

One of the biggest hurdles in Indian country once a woman goes missing is figuring out who is responsible amid a jumble of federal, state, local and tribal police departments.

Emmilee’s case illustrates the complexities: she was a citizen of the Hoopa Valley Tribe and was arrested on her reservation, but disappeared on the reservation of the neighboring Yurok Tribe. The Yurok Police Department is leading the investigation, but the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department will decide when to declare the case closed.

Recent efforts at the state and federal levels aim to address some of the challenges.

Former President Donald Trump signed a bill that required federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement agencies to create or update their case handling protocols. President Joe Biden signed an executive order to put in place national law enforcement guidelines that would help track, solve and prevent crimes against Native Americans.

A number of states, including California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona, are also tackling the crisis with studies, tribal funding or proposals to create Amber Alert-like notifications.

Emmilee’s family, meanwhile, are struggling to protect their children, now 10 and almost 2, from the trauma of their mother’s disappearance.

The boy has had nightmares and recently expressed everyone’s worst fear.

“It’s really hard when you’re taking care of grandchildren, and the grandchild says, ‘Grandpa, can you take me down the river and can we pick up my mum?’ What do you tell him? “We search, we search everyday,” said Gary Risling, choking back tears.

“And then he goes, ‘What if we can’t find her? “”


Associated Press video reporter Manuel Valdes in Seattle contributed to this report.

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