Tribe in California Struggles with Missing Women

27 February 2022

Emmilee Risling had been behaving strangely for months. The 33-year-old Native American woman had been seen getting car rides with strangers and walking without clothes through Native areas along Northern California's mountainous coast.

But things got more serious when she was charged with starting a fire in a burial area. Her family hoped the case would force her into mental health treatment.

Instead, she was released.

A picture of missing woman Emmilee Risling sits on a table at the Risling family home on Jan. 21, 2022, in McKinleyville, California. (AP)
A picture of missing woman Emmilee Risling sits on a table at the Risling family home on Jan. 21, 2022, in McKinleyville, California. (AP)

Emmilee was last seen walking across a bridge marked End of Road, in a far corner of the Yurok Reservation.

No one has seen her since.

Her disappearance is one of five examples in the past 18 months where Native American women have gone missing or been killed in the area.

Urgent crisis

The crisis has led the Yurok Tribe to issue an emergency declaration. It also has brought urgency to efforts that include building California's first database of such cases.

Native women face murder rates almost three times higher than those of white women in America. That information comes from a 2021 report by the National Congress of American Indians. More than 80 percent of Native women, the report found, have experienced violence.

In the coastal area where Emmilee was last seen, almost everyone knows someone who has disappeared.

In the state of California, the Yurok Tribe and the Indigenous-run group Sovereign Bodies Institute uncovered 18 cases of missing or killed Native American women in the past year. They consider that number far lower than the actual count. An estimated 62 percent of those cases are not listed in state or federal databases for missing persons.

Like many cases involving Indigenous women, Emmilee's disappearance has gotten no attention from the outside world.

Nearly all of the area's Indigenous people have ancestors who were sent to boarding schools as children. The children were forced to abandon their language and culture. The harmful effects of such removals remain among the Yurok. They play out in the form of drug abuse and family violence.

'There were just no services for her'

Emmilee was born into a well-known Native family. She had a bright future ahead of her. At age 15, she walked down the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with other tribal members at the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. The Washington Post newspaper published a front-page picture of her.

Emmilee received a financial award to attend the University of Oregon. There, she helped lead a Native students' group. During college, she was in an abusive relationship with a Native man. Later, she became pregnant from another man. She returned home to Northern California to have her baby.

Over time, her family says, they noticed changes in Emmilee. Her behavior became difficult to understand. Eventually, her son was taken from her care. She got involved with another abusive man and had a daughter who was also taken from her care.

Her parents were shocked by her fast decline. They think she developed a mental illness.

The only in-patient mental health center close to her home was always too full to admit her.

"There were just no services for her," said Judy Risling, Emmilee's mother.

Recent efforts

In September, Emmilee was arrested after she was found dancing around a small fire in the Hoopa Valley Reservation cemetery. The Hoopa Valley tribal police chief at the time, Bob Kane, appeared in court to explain her many mental health problems. But the court released her. Soon after, she disappeared.

Kane was not surprised. "We had predicted that something like this may ... happen in the future," he said.

Indigenous tribal police face several issues when a woman is reported missing. A complex mix of federal, state, local and tribal agencies must work together. This often delays investigations.

Recent efforts at the state and federal level seek to deal with what activists say have been years of neglecting missing and murdered Indigenous women.

In November, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to set up guidelines between the federal government and tribal police that would help investigate and prevent crimes against Native Americans.

Emmilee's case demonstrates some of the difficulties in the area.

She was a citizen of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, but she was reported missing on the neighboring Yurok Tribe's reservation.

Law enforcement decided there was not enough information to launch a full search and rescue operation in such a mountainous area.

Emmilee's family is struggling to protect her children from the trauma of their mother's disappearance. Her son has been having bad dreams. He asks to help search for his mother.

Emmilee's father, Gary Risling, said, "It's real difficult when you deal with the grandkids, and the grandkid says, ‘Grandpa, can you take me down the river and can we look for my mama?'"

"And then he says, ‘What happens if we can't find her?'"

I'm Ashley Thompson.

And I'm John Russell.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

reservation - n. an area of land in the U.S. that is kept separate as a place for Native Americans to live

indigenous - n. produced, living, or existing naturally in a particular region or environment

decline - n. to become worse in condition or quality

trauma - n. a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time

neglect - v. to fail to take care of or to give attention to (someone or something)