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 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,” 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.
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.