Cover Stories

“The Value of an Indigenous Life’”

Yurok Tribe’s California Missing and Murdered Indigenous People symposium focuses on action, solutions

An age-old crisis has finally begun to capture the attention of lawmakers, law enforcement, consumers of journalism and others. The acronym has changed—from MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) to MMIWR (adding the “R” for relatives) to MMIP (for persons)—but the phenomenon hasn’t: Native people are disappeared and killed at grossly disproportionate rates compared to other races and ethnicities, particularly in the American West, and those impacted have for generations been largely invisible to those in power.

Awareness has been a long time coming; action remains elusive.

For this week’s cover story, we present different lenses on the MMIP crisis and what officials in two states are doing to combat it. The first (below) comes from the North Coast Journal of Politics, People and Art, a weekly paper in Humboldt County, California and a fellow member of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Through reporting on a symposium the Yurok Tribe hosted in October, you’ll see that, in California, officials have made relatively significant progress, though there’s plenty more to do.

The second piece comes from Bella Davis, a former SFR staffer and member of the Yurok Tribe who now covers Indigenous affairs for New Mexico In Depth. Bella explores the recommendations of a state-mandated MMIP task force and what has—and hasn’t—been accomplished to move those recommendations along in New Mexico, where the epidemic is among the nation’s worst.


If someone new to the conversation walked into the Yurok Tribe’s first Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Symposium on Oct. 4 expecting an arm’s-length policy discussion, they would have quickly realized their mistake.

They may have looked past the vendor booths designed to showcase Native makers, or the way the 300 seats were arranged around circular tables in the Arcata Community Center in Northern California, clad with black tablecloths and regalia centerpieces to foster small group discussions. And they may have missed that the catered lunch was an intentional opportunity to break bread. But within minutes of the program’s start, it would have been impossible to miss that the subject had directly touched many in attendance.

“I come with a heavy heart today,” said Norma Contreras, tribal chair of the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians. “My family member...three years ago, we found one of my family members’ body on the reservation.”

As a tribal council member at the time, Contreras was forced to balance grieving and governing, a task all too familiar to many of her peers: tribal leaders from as far south as Jamul Indian Village to the northernmost edge of the state.

In short order, Yurok Councilmember Phillip Williams took the microphone.

“In 2017, Oct. 31, my daughter went missing. The next day, she was found, and she was passed. And I went through a lot of pain,” Williams said, his voice briefly cracking with emotion. “I apologize. That’s how I became a tribal leader. …I look at all the women in my family—my mother, my mother-in-law, my sisters, my aunties, my nieces—they’ve all been affected by violence. So I’ve done a lot of soul searching and the conclusion I’ve come to is we need to raise the value of an Indigenous life.”

With Williams’ comments and the attendant emotions they drew, the symposium began—a day-long event that featured three panel discussions with some of the state’s foremost experts on the MMIP epidemic. Tribal leaders and those working on the front lines of the crisis answered the Yurok Tribe’s invitation. Federal, tribal and state law enforcement officers came, too, as did prosecutors and elected officials.

“No one tribe, no one advocate, no one individual can lead this effort,” said Yurok Tribal Chair Joseph James. “Last night, we did a cultural sharing event, too, and it was good to dance and pray, to walk in the footsteps and seek guidance from the Creator. ...What we want to get out of this summit here today is, as I’ve always said, awareness is great, awareness is needed, and we will continue to do that. But it’s time for action.”

”Made Safe”

It’s perhaps fitting that the day’s first question was about the epidemic’s root causes. It went to Abby Abinanti. A Yurok tribal member and the first Native to become a member of the California Bar Association, she has served as the Yurok Tribal Court’s chief justice since 2008. Abinati’s Yurok Wellness Court has been heralded as an example of a progressive, culturally relevant justice system.

“When you’re talking about murdered and missing, that’s a symptom and it’s not a cause,” Abinanti said. “And it comes from what’s happening in our homelands and what’s happening to our people.”

Keeley Linton, who serves as executive director for the Strong Hearted Native Women’s Coalition and has spent two decades working to reduce family violence, pointed to the MMIP crisis’ long history.

“This is an old problem of missing Indian women—it’s been going on since the late 1800s,” she said.

While it looks different today, Indigenous people have long felt the generational trauma and impacts of an attempted genocide, not to mention an almost institutionalized invisibility through which they are frequently undercounted and ignored.

Blythe George knows this better than most. A Yurok tribal member, George is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced who helped lead the Yurok Tribe’s three-year To’ Kee Skuy’ Soo Ney-Wo-Chek’ (I Will See You Again in a Good Way) project, which sought to quantify the MMIP epidemic and develop a blueprint for tribal responses.

“I often say, you don’t know what you don’t know,” George said. “Unfortunately, many of us in this room, we are sometimes only one or two people removed from an active case. But when it comes to the great majority of Americans, they don’t really have anywhere to start, they don’t understand the problem, and getting data is such an important part of that.”

George explained that demographic data often fails to properly count Native people, noting they are often listed incorrectly if they are “white passing” or have a Latinx-sounding last name. And even when counted correctly, law enforcement and other agencies often don’t share the data, which creates difficulty in even identifying Native homicide victims or children in foster care.

But George stressed that the limited data available shows an “alarming trend” of disproportionate rates of violent crimes against Native people, particularly women.

“As a Native woman, I tell my students I’m just as likely to die of homicide as of heart disease or diabetes,” George said.

Panelists pointed to a complex web of causal factors, from high rates of generational trauma to intervention programs that aren’t culturally informed. Native children end up in foster care at hugely disproportionate rates—35 to 40% of all children in Humboldt County foster care, while Native people make up only 6.4% of the population, according to state Sen. Mike McGuire. Once there, those children experience disproportionately poor outcomes.

Raechel Ibarra, an Indigenous advocate and caseworker at a nonprofit law firm, said children frequently leave foster care placements, which can land them in youth jails, where services are limited and outcomes diminish, adding to the “foster care to MMIP pipeline.” She doesn’t “have a youth in foster care who doesn’t have an incarcerated parent, and these parents have trauma.”

“My personal opinion: I believe that youth in foster care are hunted because no one looks for them,” Ibarra said. “They are the most vulnerable population because their identities have to be concealed. ...We only know about them because they’re our sister’s children, our mother’s children or part of our communities.”

When Native people find themselves in crisis, the same programs that often fail their non-Native counterparts are even less effective for them.

“How many times could they have been made safe before they were taken?” George said.

There’s a dire need for culturally informed programs, said Morning Star Gali, a member of the Pit River Tribe and project director for Restoring Justice for Indigenous People. Tribal communities often don’t have safe housing programs, leaving survivors of abuse to move to urban areas. Some rehabilitation programs have proven effective for Native people, Gali said, but they don’t always meet the criteria for billable services under government-run health care plans.

April McGill, a California Native woman who serves as director of the community partnerships and projects for the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health, said cultural practice is crucial to community, noting that children want a feeling of belonging, whether through hunting, fishing or dance.

“Once our young people are connected, we will see a decrease in our missing people, our murdered people, because we know our culture is prevention,” McGill said, adding that cultural services are also needed in adulthood. “Want to go to a talking circle? That’s billable. You want to go to a sweat? That should be a billable service.”

”Time is Lost”

If you break the law in Indian Country, there are a host of agencies that can step in to enforce it, from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the FBI to tribal police and the sheriff’s office.

“But when you need help, they’re often wondering who it is to help you,” George said.

Multiple panelists lamented the jurisdictional morass created by Public Law 280, which Congress passed in 1953 and granted states criminal jurisdiction over Native reservations. The law took full police powers away from tribal police officers, leaving county sheriffs—often with sprawling, rural districts—to enforce state laws on tribal lands. This muddies jurisdictional boundaries to the point that when a tribal member is reported missing, there’s often a dispute over which law enforcement agency should investigate.

“Valuable time is lost when we’re worrying about whose case it is,” said George, spotlighting a well-known axiom in law enforcement circles: The first 48 hours are crucial in solving a homicide case.

But Public Law 280 created problems well beyond disagreements over jurisdiction, said Yurok Tribal Police Chief Greg O’Rourke. The statute also impacts his ability to retain quality officers and keep them safe in the field.

Tribal police officers aren’t treated as equal officers under the law, O’Rourke said, adding that they aren’t afforded the protections of the state Peace Officers Bill of Rights, access to the statewide police union’s legal defense fund or state pensions. Officers in museum and transit police departments get these things but not tribal officers, Yurok Tribal Prosecutor Rosemary Deck added, and O’Rourke said the dynamic turns his department into a training ground for state, county and city departments.

The disparity also freezes tribal officers out of state and national databases used to track everything from restraining orders to missing persons. O’Rourke said tribal officers can’t upload tribal court orders into a state database—a potentially crucial step for protecting victims of domestic violence and other forms of abuse.

“All of these issues are compounded when someone calls law enforcement at 2 am,” O’Rourke said.

Many of the issues underlying the MMIP crisis were brought into painful focus midday, when Judy and Gary Risling—parents of Emmilee Risling, who was reported missing in October 2021—addressed the symposium. They felt disconnected when their daughter, clearly in a worsening mental health crisis, would be picked up by police while walking naked only to have officers say they couldn’t do anything because she wasn’t a danger to herself or others.

“I feel walking naked is being a danger to yourself,” Gary Risling said. “It may be a nice thing [not to arrest her] but it’s not the right thing.”

Judy Risling noted that within days of a Humboldt County Superior Court judge ordering Emmilee released from jail with a promise to appear at a future court date, she “became an MMIP.”

Gary Risling asked Christopher Lorenz, the special agent in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ California justice services office, why the agency never helped search for his daughter. Lorenz said he could have provided resources but didn’t have jurisdiction.

What if they’d found a body? Gary Risling asked.

“If you found a body and the sheriff asked me to help, I can help,” Lorenz said, underscoring Public Law 280′s effect.

Gary Risling described a conversation he had with one of Emmilee’s children, noting that “a piece of you dies” when you lose a child, but it’s a trauma that will span generations. “The thing that kills me the most is when your 10-year-old grandson says, ‘Grandpa, can you take me down to look for my mom?’”

He said he replied that a lot of people were out looking.

“What happens if we don’t find her?” he recalled the child asking.

“Well,” he said, “we’ll keep looking.”

”Your Issue, As Well”

The event closed with a roundtable discussion among tribal and state leaders. Native officials praised recent laws instituting a “feather alert” system to spread word of missing Indigenous people and an initiative to provide the Department of Justice funding to study and track MMIP cases.

They also asked for more funding for forensic testing, noting that when a bone is found on tribal lands, they sometimes can’t pay for the testing to determine if it’s from an animal or a person. They asked for changes to Public Law 280 to put more power and resources in tribal hands. They asked for better data sharing, funding for dual treatment mental health centers, more representation in local school curriculums.

At one point, a tribal leader asked everyone in the room who’d had a loved one murdered or go missing to stand up. About a quarter of the room stood.

“Look how many people are standing,” the leader implored the state, federal and county elected officials. “This is why everyone’s here. This is what we need you for.”

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