Yurok Tribe seeks solutions to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis

The disappearance of Emmilee Risling from the Yurok Reservation in Humboldt County has tribal members taking responsibility into their own hands.|

Emmilee Risling’s disappearance from the Yurok Reservation in Humboldt County has galvanized members of her tribe into action on the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women.

Yurok Tribal Chairman Joe James issued an emergency declaration to raise awareness, not just about Risling’s case, but about the nationwide crisis.

“One of the things that we’ve told our tribal courts, our law enforcement, our staff, is that it’s all hands on deck,” James said May 5 at a rally for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Klamath.

“We want to shorten the gaps and bring resources and funding here to the tribe,” he said.

The tribe has been working with state lawmakers to create a missing Indigenous persons alert system, similar to an Amber Alert, which would include tribal affiliations and state whether the victim was taken off of a reservation, James said.

Jessica Carter, the Yurok Tribal Court Director, who has overseen the expansion of their multimillion-dollar Tribal Court and Justice Center, has been applying for grants to fund other projects that would address the crisis, said Abby Abinanti.

Abinanti, known as “Judge Abby,” is the chief justice of the Yurok Tribe and California’s first Native American female lawyer.

The tribe has been working on creating its own system of investigation and data keeping, and building a formal protocol of integrating tribal, county and federal law enforcement resources when responding to missing Native people cases, Carter said.

Carter and Judge Abby have also been leading projects to address violence toward Native women, including the only state-certified tribal domestic violence program ― Skuy-ech-son,’ the Yurok phrase meaning “to heal one’s self.”

The program was devised after Judge Abby and others who noticed that tribal members were going to jail for failing to attend state-ordered domestic violence classes.

Judge Abby said she recalls calling a probation officer at about 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon.

“I said go up there and ask them if they can read and write.’”

“What do you mean?” the officer asked.

“They couldn’t read and they would rather go to jail than tell you,’“ she said.

So tribal members devised their own program to help tribal members who are illiterate, incorporate traditional ways of restorative justice.

It’s based off the assumption “that most people want to be in community and be in harmony,” Judge Abby said.

The Yurok are California’s largest surviving tribe. Their homeland in the rugged northern reaches of the state has helped the tribe escape much of colonialism’s destruction, but now it’s time to come out of isolation to receive help and to help the state, Judge Abby said.

“We’ve been managing the land for thousands of years, while (European settlers) only arrived a couple centuries ago,” she said.

The Yurok Tribal Justice Court is almost three years into their five-year report with the nonprofit Sovereign Bodies Institute to create the To’Kee Skuy’ Soo’ Ney-Wo-Chek’, which means, “I will see you again in a good way” project.

In the next two years, the tribe and institute will use their research to inform policy change.

Judge Abby said the tribe needs to do three things:

First, it’s getting the mechanics to do the job, which includes hiring data experts and acquiring the right equipment to conduct searches, which is “overwhelming,” she said.

Second, they need to analyze the data to figure out what is contributing to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women problem, and put an end to those.

“Then, deal with all the pain that's left behind,” she said.

“It takes a village mentality,” Judge Abby said, which includes going back to their traditional roots and ways of healing.

Tribal police and the justice court are aiming to create their own search and rescue team, said tribal police Chief Greg O’Rourke.

But before it reaches that point, Native women need to do more to protect themselves from becoming victims, and community members and family members must support them, O’Rourke said.

He has been accused of victim-blaming, O’Rourke said. “But all I’m saying is to not present yourself as a victim, because predators target the ones who are the most vulnerable.”

What young women and girls need is to feel supported by their community, O’Rourke said. “We need to be empowering them.”

One of the traditional ways is through a flower dance, a coming-of-age ceremony that honors them as beings who can give life. The dance includes the entire girls’ village, or her community, and it takes 10 days of preparation, which includes collecting firewood, cooking food, preparing traditional regalia and prayer, O’Rourke said.

Delainy Sorrell, 15, a Yurok tribal member at the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women march in Klamath, had a red handprint painted across her mouth, a symbol to indicate solidarity with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and girls.

“When I was a kid, for a while I’d see posters hanging up and I would look around for the people,” Sorrel said. “I was never really told why they’re missing.”

She was never allowed to go anywhere alone as a kid except to visit the river by her house.

“Even nowadays I‘m not allowed to go anywhere by myself,” she said.

“I’ve never had a flower dance,” she said, “But I’ve been to some of my friends’.”

What young girls learn at a flower dance is that “you have worth, you have merit, you are valuable,” O’Rourke said.

“Just think about that empowerment that a young woman receives to know she has a place and is being cared for by an entire village.”

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

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