Where Did They Go? Indigenous Women on California’s Northern Coastline Are Vanishing…

Unless requiring state or federal intervention, Native-American tribes are generally left to their own devices. Reservations are patrolled and governed by tribe members who rarely ask for outside help unless a situation exceeds their capabilities and spills into the hands of federal authorities. 

A 33-year old mother, college graduate, and skilled traditional dancer had been acting strangely for several months. She’d been seen hitchhiking and had been spotting wandering naked through two of the small Native-American reservations located on Northern California’s coastline.

Emmilee Risling was later arrested by state authorities for setting a cemetery on fire and was subsequently charged with arson. Hoping her arrest might lead Risling to seek help with her mental health issues and her drug addiction, her family was oddly grateful. 

But when her friends and even the Yurok tribal police chief begged authorities to release Risling back to them, she was never properly evaluated prior to being sprung, and her issues were never addressed. 

She was soon after seen walking over a short bridge in a remote corner of the reservation that leads straight into a dense dark forest where she mysteriously disappeared and has not been heard from since.

The Yurok, Hupa, Karuk, Tolowa, and Wiyot tribes have occupied isolated expanses of the Pacific coastline between San Francisco and Oregon for well over a millennium. While Risling’s case may appear to be an isolated incident, it’s anything but. She is but one of five Indigenous women who have disappeared or been killed along the rugged coast of California over the past 18 months.

Authorities claim that two of the deaths were the result of drug overdoses even when the families in each case had unanswered questions regarding the severe bruises found on both bodies that investigators chose to overlook.

The Yuroks have had quite enough. They issued an emergency declaration to prompt the state of California to create a database of these types of cases to compare similarities and such. 

Blythe George is a Yukon tribesman and a consultant for the project. “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,” he said. “You can’t help but see yourself in those people.”

A government report in 2021 found that the number of Native-American women who have gone missing or were murdered cannot be determined. There have been problems with tribes reporting incidences due to a tribal-wide distrust of law enforcement, jurisdiction arguments, and a shared attitude of “what happens on the res, stays on the res.” 

The murder rate of female Native Americans on reservations is three times higher than that of white women. In certain areas of the country, it exceeds the national average by tenfold, and overall, over 80% of Indigenous women have fallen victim to violence in some capacity.

In the case of Risling and others who have disappeared from the Pacific coastline, there are other complications to consider. Northern California is riddled with illegal marijuana growers who aren’t known for being neighborly to wayward hikers and such. It’s difficult to find anyone in this part of the state who doesn’t know someone who didn’t suddenly fall off the face of the earth.

A great majority of the hidden marijuana farms are run by Mexicans who work for some very dangerous people who value their businesses over human life. The growers can either eliminate accidental perpetrators or risk their own elimination. It’s that simple.

Like the other women who vanished in Northern California, it’s doubtful that even the smallest trace of Risling will ever be recovered, database or no database.