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With a photograph of her mother Emmilee Risling, missing since last October, Josephine, 21-months-old, repeated “Mama” several times while viewing the image, after a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women march in Klamath, Thursday, May 5, 2022. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)

Missing Yurok woman brings to light crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Northern California

The toddler was holding her grandfather’s hand when she looked up and saw the rain-soaked picture.

It showed a bright-eyed young woman with long brown hair wearing layers of shell necklaces.

The little girl broke free from her grandfather and ran toward the photograph.

“Mama!” she cried.

The woman in the picture is Emmilee Risling, a 33-year-old mother and a Hupa tribal member of Yurok and Karuk ancestry.

She disappeared six months ago from the Yurok Reservation on the far northern coast of California, a remote paradise that is home to towering sequoias, dense forests and rushing rivers. It is also home to California’s largest tribe, one of only two that still reside on their ancestral homeland.

“Yes, that’s your mama,” the grandfather told 21-month-old Josephine in a gentle voice as the child’s teary-eyed grandmother, Judy Risling, sat nearby watching the two.

The three had just walked through the drizzling rain behind about 150 other Yurok tribal members in somber procession to drop red roses and carnations in the Klamath River.

It was May 5, National Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples Day, and they were there to honor Risling, who vanished into the forest more than six months ago.

The Klamath River flows into the Pacific Ocean, Thursday, May 5, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
The Klamath River flows into the Pacific Ocean, Thursday, May 5, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

The Lost Coast, the largest undeveloped stretch of coastline in California, is remote and sparsely populated. The steep and rugged terrain makes road building difficult, if not impossible. It is a place where Indigenous women and girls have always gone missing at alarming rates, though the data has been poorly kept if recorded at all. And family members say investigations are not taken seriously until it’s too late.

“In Indian Country, everyone has a connection to somebody who's missing, and they may not even realize it.” Kendall Allen-Guyer

“In Indian Country, everyone has a connection to somebody who's missing, and they may not even realize it,” said Kendall Allen-Guyer, the project manager for a project called To’Kee Skuy’ Soo’ Ney-Wo-Chek’, which means “I will see you again in a good way” in the Yurok language, and is a collaboration between Sovereign Bodies Institute and the Yurok Tribal Court.

She is also Risling’s cousin.

“Her story just reiterates this could happen to anybody,” she said.

The shield of the forest

Risling is one of 107 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Northern California, according to a 2021 study by the Sovereign Bodies Institute in partnership with the Yurok Tribal Court.

The number includes two-spirit people ― the Indigenous term used to describe people who identify as both masculine and feminine.

(Sovereign Bodies Institute is a nonprofit that builds on Indigenous traditions to gather data and research gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people. It’s sponsored by Inquiring Systems Inc., a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit.)

Risling, who police say was deeply troubled, was last seen Oct. 13, 2021, by a school bus full of children. She was alone, naked on a remote bridge over Pecwan Creek, which runs toward the Klamath River, said Greg O’Rourke, the Yurok Tribe’s chief of police.

On a rain-shrouded day in early May, O’Rourke took a Press Democrat reporter and photographer down sleek twisting roads to get to the secluded bridge, about a two-hour trek into the heart of the reservation.

Yurok Tribal Police Chief Greg O’Rourke at the site, Thursday, May 5, 2022, where Emmilee Risling, a 33-year-old mother and a Hupa tribal member of Yurok and Karuk ancestry was last seen in October 2021. The bridge, which crosses the east fork of Pecwan Creek and parallel with the Klamath River, left, is nearly at the end of Highway 169 in an extremely remote and densely wooded area north of Weitchpec in Humboldt County. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Yurok Tribal Police Chief Greg O’Rourke at the site, Thursday, May 5, 2022, where Emmilee Risling, a 33-year-old mother and a Hupa tribal member of Yurok and Karuk ancestry was last seen in October 2021. The bridge, which crosses the east fork of Pecwan Creek and parallel with the Klamath River, left, is nearly at the end of Highway 169 in an extremely remote and densely wooded area north of Weitchpec in Humboldt County. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

He looked out across the frigid waters of the vast river.

“The Klamath River is greedy,” O’Rourke said. “She usually doesn’t give our bodies back to us like some rivers do.”

For O’Rourke, the case is personal. Risling used to babysit his children.

There have been other sightings of Risling, but none are confirmed, O’Rourke said. Law enforcement hasn’t been able to conduct search warrants of anybody the family suspects because there’s no evidence of foul play to warrant a criminal investigation.

Police say Risling had been roaming the area naked on several occasions and was arrested for arson after starting a fire in a cemetery shortly before her disappearance.

Her mother, Judy Risling, said she wasn’t always like that. But after giving birth to Josephine, her second child, she had postpartum depression and was unable to get treatment. She was also in an abusive relationship and may have been self-medicating with drugs.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day

Last year, President Joe Biden formally proclaimed May 5 as National Missing Murdered Indigenous Peoples Day to raise awareness of the crisis many Native American tribes face.

While this is the second year the day is being nationally recognized, it’s the first time many tribes are commemorating the lost women on this day by holding dances, candlelight vigils and rallies.

According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, homicide is the third-leading cause of death among Native American women, and Native women face rates of violence up to 10 times higher than the national average.

“I think that, right now, we're really trying to leverage this time and this attention, especially on May 5 every year,” said Blythe George, a member of the Yurok Tribe and a researcher for the Sovereign Bodies Institute.

“The Klamath River is greedy. She usually doesn’t give our bodies back to us like some rivers do.” Greg O’Rourke, the Yurok Tribe’s chief of police

A week ago, the Jon Francis Foundation, a Minnesota nonprofit that works with families who have lost loved ones in the wilderness, conducted a massive search of almost half the 88-acre reservation, which straddles Del Norte and Humboldt along the Klamath.

The foundation provided volunteers while recruiting 20 other searchers and 10 cadaver-sniffing dogs with aid from the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office and Yurok police. They searched up and down the river and in the swathes of thick forest and treacherous terrain, to no avail.

For centuries, the impenetrable wall of oaks, redwoods and ferns protected the Yurok from much of colonialism’s grasp and destruction, O’Rourke said. Though not all escaped the fate of indentured slavery, forced boarding schools or massacres.

Today, the breathing tangle of forest, accessible only through swerving back roads, serves as a different kind of barrier, blocking the tribe’s 6,300 members from access to public services that members say they need. Among those are prompt emergency medical response, drug rehabilitation and mental health crisis intervention.

And when it comes to missing cases, “every second matters,” Allen-Guyer said.

Delainy Sorrell, 15, of Klamath with her handprint painted across her mouth, a symbol to indicate solidarity with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and girls, prior to a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women march in Klamath, Thursday, May 5, 2022. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)
Delainy Sorrell, 15, of Klamath with her handprint painted across her mouth, a symbol to indicate solidarity with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and girls, prior to a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women march in Klamath, Thursday, May 5, 2022. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)

Lack of data

Across the U.S., Native families are demanding answers to their missing women and girls as tribes fight to raise awareness of historical violence.

In 2016, the National Crime Information Center tracked more than 5,700 missing Indigenous women and girls. However, only 116 were reported in U.S. Department of Justice statistics, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.

A search of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System only comes up with 27 missing American Indian or Alaska Native people in Northern California since the 1950s.

According to the Sovereign Bodies Institute, 62% of all missing Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people in the state are not documented in any data repository.

For tribes, one of the biggest issues has been the lack of an effective system for tracking data and sharing it across tribal, county, state and federal entities.

The statistics that do exist are grim.

American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2½ times likely to experience violent crimes compared to all other races, according to the DOJ, while Native women are at least twice as likely to experience rape or sexual assault compared to all other races, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I certainly feel the invisibleness, in the sense of that they think we're invisible,” Abby Abinanti, chief justice of the Yurok Tribe

Native American women on reservations can be up to 10 times more likely to fall victim to an act of violence than the nationwide average, according to a 2016 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute.

In April 2021, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the nation’s first Native American cabinet member, created the Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services to push collaboration between government agencies.

However, there is still no publicly searchable database that lists cases by tribe and location, said a Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesperson.

The lack of that kind of information is a major barrier when it comes to understanding the issue of missing or murdered Indigenous people, said Blythe George, an assistant sociology professor at University of California, Merced and a Yurok tribal member who is a researcher for the Sovereign Bodies Institute.

The Sovereign Bodies report found 18 new cases were reported in California last year, none of which were resolved. Researchers and tribal members alike believe the statistics represent a small fraction of the actual number of cases.

Nearly 60% of the cases originated in Northern California, between San Francisco to the Oregon border. Of those, 22% are missing, 62% were murdered and 16% are of an unknown status.

“Very few tribes have access to tribally specific data” that would help them understand the issue and fight for resources and grants accordingly, George said.

Institutions that should be responsible for keeping data, such as county jails, social services and departments of health, often don’t realize they are working with tribal clients and don’t designate it in their records.

“I always say, we don't know what we don't know,” George said. “And MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) is a real archetype of that very scenario ― just trying to get a handle on the unanswered questions before we can even start answering them.”

Abby Abinanti, Chief Justice of the Yurok Tribe and California’s first Native American female lawyer, in her office in Klamath, Thursday, May 5, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2022
Abby Abinanti, Chief Justice of the Yurok Tribe and California’s first Native American female lawyer, in her office in Klamath, Thursday, May 5, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2022

Mistrust

Behind a desk covered in pen-filled mugs surrounded by art, certificates, posters and a selfie with Interior Secretary Haaland, sits Abby Abinanti. More commonly known as “Judge Abby,” she is the chief justice of the Yurok Tribe and California’s first Native American female lawyer.

“I certainly feel the invisibleness, in the sense of that they think we're invisible,” Judge Abby said. “But we've never been invisible to each other and we’ve never not seen them.

“The hardest thing is the toll it takes on the family.”

For tribal law enforcement, the biggest challenge is a lack of resources and public mistrust.

The Yurok Tribal Police Department consists of 12 personnel, including O’Rourke. His No. 1 goal is bulking up the department with qualified, personable officers who tribal members can trust, he said.

Today, the tribe is affected heavily by a cycle of generational trauma, O’Rourke said.

The majority of tribal members are not gainfully employed. Domestic violence rates are high. Many cope with drug and alcohol use, O’Rourke said.

From the mid-17th to early 20th centuries, boarding schools with a primary objective of “civilizing” or assimilating Native American children into Euro-American culture stripped Native Americans of their culture and traditions, an attempt to erase their history and identity.

It was social workers who knocked on their family’s doors, often accompanied by a deputy, taking their children from them to send to boarding schools.

The few Natives who returned to their reservations were traumatized by physical and sexual abuse that often took place, and many parented with that unresolved trauma, O’Rourke said. Then their kids grew up to be parents who were impacted by the trauma, and now their kids are struggling, he said.

“We used to play this game called run and hide,” O’Rourke said. The other day his granddaughter ran and hid when there was a knock on the door.

“I really think that generational trauma is imprinted on us,” he said.

A broken system

Another key to the problem is an artifact of white paternalism known as Public Law 280, a federal law that gives the state authority to enforce and prosecute state law on tribal land in six states: Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Wisconsin and California.

Emmilee Risling wears a cape of dentalium shells on the day of her high school graduation in 2010. (Judy Risling)
Emmilee Risling wears a cape of dentalium shells on the day of her high school graduation in 2010. (Judy Risling)

Because Native American reservations may cover several counties, the law created overlapping jurisdictions, ultimately causing confusion among law enforcement and the public and leading to inconsistent response times to crime.

In 1953, when Public Law 280 was put in place, “the tribes weren't consulted,” Humboldt County Sheriff William F. Honsal said.

“Things were just enforced on the tribes,” he said. “And so I just think that law enforcement and tribes really didn't have a good foundation.”

Plus, when it comes to a missing person, the remoteness of the reservation means there’s usually no witnesses, security cameras or evidence to guide their investigation, Honsal said.

In the case of Risling, the missing Yurok mother of two, “it's difficult,” Honsal said. “It's heart-wrenching because no one wants to lose their loved one and have them go missing, and then for us to say, ‘there's not much we can do. We don't know where she is. And we have nothing to follow up on.’”

The Sheriff’s Office supports the tribe’s vision to have more of a role in their Missing and Murdered Indigenous women cases and prevention, he said.

'Do I matter?’

For families, one of the biggest issues is feeling like law enforcement doesn’t take their cases seriously from the get-go.

Media coverage does not compare to that of many white women who go missing. The Gabby Petito case drew international attention last year, and the Humboldt Five, a group of white women with similar looks who have gone missing or been murdered in the same region between the 1990s and 2014, has also received extensive coverage.

“For as many of those cases there are, there are several times more Indigenous cases,” George said. “We just don't get that coverage.”

During Allen-Guyer’s research for the tribe, one of the most startling things she encountered was when a family member told her, “It feels like we're not searching for my mom, like my mom is not important,” she said.

“And that trickles down to, am I important? Do I matter or not? Do I have the face to get enough press if something happens to me? Do I have to be overachieving or anything like that for someone to come search for me?”

Tribe seeks solutions

After Risling disappeared, Yurok Tribal Chairman Joe James declared a state of emergency on the Yurok Reservation to bring immediate action and raise awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

Risling’s disappearance, along with others, has both reminded Northern California tribal members of the glaring issues that need to be resolved and motivated them to seek solutions.

The Yurok Tribal Justice Court is almost three years into its five-year report with Sovereign Bodies Institute. In the next two years it will use the report’s findings to inform policy change and create its own system of investigation, prevention and data keeping.

Emmilee Risling kissing her son David, who is now 10 years old on the cheek. Risling was last seen by a school bus, walking alone along a bridge across the Klamath River in October, 2021. (Judy Risling)
Emmilee Risling kissing her son David, who is now 10 years old on the cheek. Risling was last seen by a school bus, walking alone along a bridge across the Klamath River in October, 2021. (Judy Risling)

But it’s important to remember the people behind every number, Allen-Guyer said.

Risling was a University of Oregon graduate, a leader, an advocate for Native girls and women and an experienced traditional dancer.

But what Allen-Guyer remembers most about her was the way she cared for her two children.

“She loved her kids first,” said her mother, Judy Risling. “Second was her culture.”

Risling was the regalia-holder for the family, a sacred role and one she used to educate young ones about the importance of their heritage, Allen-Guyer said.

“Since she’s been missing, I’ve just heard from so many people how much of a help she was to them,” Risling said, tearing up.

“Our people deserve closure,” Chairman James said. “Close your eyes and imagine ― if it was your sister, your daughter, your niece, your child ― how helpless of a feeling that is.”

Judy Risling, right, the mother of Emmilee Risling, who is missing, embraces Yurok tribal council member Sherri Provolt, Thursday, May 5, 2022 after a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women march in Klamath. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2022
Judy Risling, right, the mother of Emmilee Risling, who is missing, embraces Yurok tribal council member Sherri Provolt, Thursday, May 5, 2022 after a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women march in Klamath. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2022

“Nobody wants their child to be the poster child for MMIW, but if it does bring awareness, it’s all worth it,” Risling said. “We have hope.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

Alana Minkler

Breaking news & general assignment reporter, The Press Democrat

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering breaking news, tribes and youth, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

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