Tribe grapples with a crisis regarding missing women along California coast
Five times in 18 months, Indigenous women have gone missing or been killed in an isolated expanse of coastline between San Francisco and Oregon where the Yurok, Hupa, Karuk and Wiyot people have coexisted for millenia.
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 Northern California’s rugged Lost Coast.
Then, Emmilee Risling was charged with arson for igniting a fire in a cemetery.
Her family hoped the case would force her into mental health and addiction services. Instead, she was released over the pleas of loved ones and a tribal police chief.
The 33-year-old college graduate — an accomplished traditional dancer with ancestry from three tribes — was last seen not long after that, walking across a bridge near a place marked End of Road, a far corner of the Yurok Reservation where the rutted pavement dissolves into thick woods.
Her disappearance is one of five instances in 18 months in which Indigenous women have gone missing or been killed in this isolated expanse of Pacific coastline between San Francisco and Oregon, a region where the Yurok, Hupa, Karuk, Tolowa and Wiyot people have coexisted for millennia.
Two other women died from what authorities say were overdoses, though their relatives have questions about severe bruises they had.
The crisis has spurred the Yurok Tribe to issue an emergency declaration and brought heightened urgency to efforts to build California’s first database of such cases and regain sovereignty over key services.
“I came to this issue as both a researcher and a learner, but, just in this last year, I knew three of the women who have gone missing or were murdered — and we shared so much in common,” said Blythe George, a Yurok tribal member who consults on a project documenting the problem. “You can’t help but see yourself in those people.”
The recent cases spotlight an epidemic that’s difficult to quantify but has long disproportionately plagued Native Americans.
A 2021 report by a congressional watchdog found the true number of missing and murdered Indigenous women is unknown due to reporting problems, wide distrust of law enforcement and jurisdictional conflicts.
But Native women face murder rates nearly three times those of white women overall — and up to 10 times the national average in certain locations, according to a 2021 summary of the existing research by the National Congress of American Indians. And more than 80% have experienced violence.
In this area peppered with illegal marijuana farms and defined by wilderness, almost everyone knows someone who has vanished.
Missing person posters flutter from gas station doors and road signs. Even the tribal police chief isn’t untouched: He took in the daughter of one missing woman, and Emmilee — an enrolled Hoopa Valley tribal member with Yurok and Karuk blood — babysat his children.
In California alone, the Yurok Tribe and the Sovereign Bodies Institute, an Indigenous people-run research and advocacy group, uncovered 18 cases of missing or slain Native American women in roughly the past year — a number they consider a vast undercount. An estimated 62% of those cases aren’t listed in state or federal missing-persons databases.
Hupa citizen Brandice Davis went to school with the daughters of a woman who disappeared in 1991 and now has daughters of her own who are 9 and 13 years old.
“Here, we’re all related, in a sense,” she said of a place where many families are connected by marriage or community ties.
Davis cautions her daughters about what it means to be female, Native American and growing up on a reservation: “You’re a statistic. But we have to keep going. We have to show people we’re still here.”
As often happens in cases involving Indigenous women, Risling’s disappearance has gotten little attention from the outside world.
But many here see in her story the ugly intersection of generations of trauma inflicted on Native Americans by their white colonizers, the marginalization of Native peoples and tribal law enforcement’s lack of authority over many crimes committed on their land.
Virtually all of the area’s Indigenous residents, including Risling, have ancestors who were shipped to boarding schools as children and forced to give up their language and culture as part of a federal assimilation campaign.
Further back, Yurok people spent years away from home as indentured servants for colonizers, according to Abby Abinanti, the tribe’s chief judge.
The trauma caused by those removals echoes among the Yurok in the form of drug abuse and domestic violence, which trickles down to the youth, 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 generationally those play out.”
An analysis of cases by the Yurok and Sovereign Bodies found most of the region’s missing women had been in foster care themselves or had children taken from them by the state.
An analysis of jail bookings also showed Yurok citizens in the two-county region are 11 times more likely to go to jail in a year — and half of those arrested are female, usually for low-level crimes. That’s an arrest rate for for Yurok women roughly five times the rate of female incarcerations nationwide, according to George, the University of California, Merced sociologist consulting with the tribe.
The Yurok run a tribal wellness court for addiction and operate one of the country’s only state-certified tribal domestic violence perpetrator programs. They also recently hired a tribal prosecutor, another step toward building an Indigenous justice system that ultimately would handle all but the most serious felonies.
The Yurok also are working to reclaim supervision over foster care and hope to transfer their first foster family from state court within months, said Jessica Carter, the Yurok Tribal Court director. A tribal-run guardianship court follows another 50 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’s taken the greatest toll on their women.
“If we are successful, we can use that as a gift to other tribes to say, ‘Here’s the steps we took,’ ” said Rosemary Deck, the new tribal prosecutor. “‘You can take this as a blueprint and assert your own sovereignty.’ ”