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California tribes, Department of Justice meet to address state’s backlog of missing and murdered indigenous people cases

Yurok Tribal Police Chief Greg O'Rourke visits the last confirmed location on Jan. 19, 2022, where Emmilee Risling was seen before going missing in October 2021, in Klamath, Calif.
Nathan Howard
AP Photo
Yurok Tribal Police Chief Greg O'Rourke visits the last confirmed location on Jan. 19, 2022, where Emmilee Risling was seen before going missing in October 2021, in Klamath, Calif.

A generations-long injustice has long plagued Indigenous communities without closure — the backlog of unsolved cases of missing or murdered Indigenous people, many of which are decades old.

The reason behind it all involves a web of jurisdictions between federal, local and tribal land that creates barriers and loopholes in investigating the cases thoroughly, if at all. There are strong arguments within Native American and Indigenous communities that the system was explicitly designed for a consistent lack of justice.

However, that is changing at both the state and federal level with more monetary investment in the community.

California State Attorney General Rob Bonta told CapRadio’s Vicki Gonzalez that addressing the MMIP crisis was “long overdue and needed.”

“In the last year and a half, last two years … it became more of a top priority that we really wanted to move on and help on,” Bonta said.

In April, the California Attorney General’s Office of Native American Affairs held an event called “Missing in California Indian Country.”

It’s the first meeting of its kind in the state to elevate California’s response to the missing and murdered Indigenous persons crisis. The gathering occurred along the North Coast in Humboldt County, home to several Indigenous lands, including the Yurok, Karuk, Tolowa, Wiyot and Hoopa Valley tribes.

To learn more about the crisis, CapRadio’s Vicki Gonzalez spoke with Allie Hostler, the managing editor of the Two Rivers Tribune, the only native-owned newspaper in California that serves Humboldt, Trinity, and Siskiyou Counties, along with Yurok Tribal Police Chief Greg O’Rourke.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Interview highlights

On what people should know about the backlog of cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous people

O’Rourke: I think that the first thing [people should understand] is that this actually is a crisis. For so many years and for so many generations, it was never a prevalent thing.

And not just locally, but all across the country [and] up into Canada. Right now, there’s momentum with this movement to be able to bring awareness and, with that awareness, to be able to bring help.

On the challenges of investigating these cases

O’Rourke: One of the biggest things that we have to bring attention to right now is when it comes to Indian Country and Native people, we are not necessarily bound by jurisdiction or geographic lines up on the North Coast or even across the state and country — we have ties with each other.

But yet, when it comes to the investigating agency, those agencies are bound by jurisdiction, and that has an impact on Native people. [We] have a historical mistrust of law enforcement [that] goes back to the days of boarding schools.

As a matter of fact, the word for “police officer” translates directly to “he goes and gets people.” There’s a very negative connotation to that.. But yet, as tribal police, our Native communities have an investment in us, and we will actually get a different level of cooperation from the community than the sheriff’s office, CHP or even the federal law enforcement partners.

We as tribal police are trying to offer a model of community policing that we think that the state and country can actually learn from and hopefully adopt and be able to help build rapport and trust against law enforcement and their communities.

On what Indigenous journalists are hearing about the growing awareness of this crisis

Hostler: When we first started covering these stories and stating that [Missing and Murdered Indigenous People] MMIP was a crisis and was building momentum as a movement … I really felt like there was resistance 8 to 10 years ago when this movement started coming out. People felt like it was unearthing painful pieces of their past, and they weren't quite ready to process that publicly.

I've really watched that change. People feel like their stories are being legitimized — they're being heard, and I've seen people become empowered. It's been a slower transition than we would hope, but I feel like we're on the right track with people being more open to talking about the underlying issues that have contributed to the MMIP crisis.

People are becoming more vocal about domestic violence, sexual assault. They're becoming more vocal about trust issues with law enforcement. And I feel like law enforcement is entirely making changes to address those trust issues with culturally sensitive training happening within tribal police departments and across different jurisdictions.

I feel like we're on a path to healing, but we're still a long way away from keeping our community safe. We still have a lot of work to do, but I do see folks coming out of their shells and feeling empowered and holding more events.

… There are positive things happening, and the people feel better that their loved one isn't being completely forgotten and cold cases are being revisited. They feel like they have a shot at justice.

On how a federal investigator has helped the Yurok Tribe with MMIP cases

O’Rourke: The MMIP investigator that the tribe hired really was kind of born out of an idea of hope … What if we had an investigator who was deputized in multiple counties, who was deputized federally through a special law enforcement commission by the [Bureau of Indian Affairs], who has a report just by virtue of being tribal police with a community, but also worked law enforcement for many years and aside between the two?

And lo and behold, that idea came to fruition — and that’s what we’re hoping that this investigator can do.

When there was an [MMIP] case in Mendocino County … I knew intimate details of that case because, as families, we talk to each other. The problem with that, though, was the investigating agency did not have those details. I don’t know if it would have changed the case.

But what I can say as an investigator is we need that information, and we need it in a timely fashion. So what if we had a tribal investigator that knew [the] law enforcement process but also had the trust of the community to be able to act as that in between? So in that sense, potentially, that investigator could be a game changer.

We’ll have to wait and find out.

Vicki Gonzalez is a Murrow and Emmy award-winning journalist with nearly 15 years of experience as a reporter, news anchor and producer.
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