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The Yurok Tribe Offers 'Blueprint' to End the MMIP Crisis 

click to enlarge Blythe George discusses the report she co-authored as a part of the To 'Kee Skuy 'Soo Ney-Wo-Chek' Project, which is Yurok for, "I will see you again in a good way," during an event in Klamath on July 29.

Photo by Thadeus Greenson

Blythe George discusses the report she co-authored as a part of the To 'Kee Skuy 'Soo Ney-Wo-Chek' Project, which is Yurok for, "I will see you again in a good way," during an event in Klamath on July 29.

By the time the news came in mid-October of 2021, Blythe George was already immersed in the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

A Yurok tribal member with a PHD from Harvard serving as an assistant professor of sociology at University of California at Merced, George had already spent more than two years working on the tribe's project to quantify and examine the MMIP epidemic in California. Funded through a U.S. Department of Justice grant and known as To 'Kee Skuy 'Soo Ney-Wo-Chek' (Yurok for, "I will see you again in a good way"), the project had already published two reports. The first collected data from disparate sources to show Indigenous women and girls go missing at disproportionately high rates, particularly in Northern California, and that their murders are six times less likely to be solved, often due to a "pervasive" failure of law enforcement to investigate due to a myriad of factors, from jurisdictional confusion and rural landscapes to generational trauma and mistrust. The second annual report focused on including victims of all genders and orientations, replacing the term Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls with Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, and areas for prevention and intervention.

George and colleagues were researching the program's third and final report last fall when, during a routine phone call, Program Manager Kendall Allen-Guyer broke the news: Their mutual acquaintance, Allen Guyer's cousin and George's friend, Emmilee Risling, a 32-year-old mother of two, a University of Oregon political science graduate and ceremonial singer and dancer, was missing. A Yurok descendent and enrolled Hoopa Valley tribal member, Risling has deep ties on both reservations, including ones that threaded throughout the MMIP project. She'd helped out with George's first book, was a part of Allen Guyer's and even babysat Yurok Tribal Police Chief Gregory O'Rourke.

At a July 29 event to commemorate the release of the project's third report, George explained that Risling's disappearance hit with devastating impact, at once underscoring the importance of the project's work to address the MMIP crisis and making it feel somehow hollow.

"It feels too little, too late," George said.

But rather than shy away from the fact that the work had suddenly became intensely personal, George and her colleagues leaned into it, deciding to make part of the third report a case study on Risling's story. Suddenly, the team was experiencing the things they'd be studying from a difference in real time.

"The work couldn't be fast enough and we were learning in real time where it was falling short, where balls were being dropped," George said.

The result of that painstaking work is the 169-page report released July 29, which is designed to serve as a blueprint for addressing the crisis, giving tribes and communities steps to follow to better collect data on the epidemic and investigate cases, while also working to prevent them from happening altogether. It includes step-by-step guides on how to create customized community response plans that can be scaled and adapted, as well as a handful of concrete state policy proposals to remove "systemic barriers" that hamper tribes' ability to keep their people safe.

First, the report calls on the Legislature to pass a bill by Assemblymember James Ramos that would create a "Feather Alert," similar to the Amber and Silver alert systems created to spread word about at-risk missing children and seniors but for tribal members. The report also supports Gov. Gavin Newsom's proposed $15 million budget proposal for the Yurok Tribal Court to build a culturally informed wellness center, which could offer holistic mental health and drug treatment services.

The report also strongly supports efforts to grant tribal police the same authority to enforce state law as other police officers, as well as efforts to give them access to the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, which, known as CLETS, allows agencies to access statewide and national databases.

These policy priorities are starting points, Yurok Tribal Chair Joseph James told the Journal.

"We won't stop there," he said. "It's not enough. It's not our way [to allow people to go missing], it's not the Indigenous way. We're here to care for one another, to look out for one another."

Sometimes through the painful hindsight that came with missteps in the investigation of Risling's disappearance, the report also has direct, tangible tips for families and law enforcement officers making or taking missing persons reports. For example, the report notes that while Risling was reported missing to the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, which entered her information in the local system, the information was not uploaded to the California Department of Justice website or the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System to make sure it was broadcast and accessible to other jurisdictions.

"Making sure that the law enforcement agency taking the report enters the corresponding details in both places is essential because these data systems do not speak to one another," the report states.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the study of Risling's case included in the report are the testimonials from her loved ones, who describe a feeling of hopelessness as they watched her mental health issues compound and cascade in a system that was maddeningly incapable of "making her safe," as George puts it. The report notes that Risling's dual diagnosis of mental health and substance use issues presented roadblocks to getting her mental health care, while the courts seemingly ignored pleas from prosecutors and family members to order her into some type of mental health treatment. The result, the report found, is that while Risling's mental health seemed to deteriorate, resulting in repeated law enforcement contacts, arrests and court appearances, no one effectively intervened to get her help.

The report makes clear truly addressing the MMIP epidemic is a massive undertaking, one that demands immediate policy changes like those described above, but also community-based solutions aimed at preventing trauma and providing culturally informed care without law enforcement intervention. Dubbed a "tool kit," the report is aimed at giving communities a primer on how to make incremental and lasting change.

While some at the July 29 unveiling of the project report — as well as a community mural led by artist Claudi Bernardi to serve as a "multi-layered depiction of the tragedy of silenced voices — dubbed the event a chance to "celebrate" the hard work of the project team, Laura Woods saw it differently. A community outreach specialist with the Yurok Tribal Court, Woods said the good work should be recognized but celebration is premature.

"We'll come together some day and celebrate the end of this program because it's no longer needed," she said.

To read the project's full report, as well as those from prior years, visit https://bit.ly/3PDK6sN. For more information on Risling's case, including ways to contribute to future search efforts, visit www.gofundme.com/f/search-efforts-for-emmilee-risling.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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