Emmilee Risling, like many other missing Indigenous people across the country, still has not been found.
Risling, a 33-year-old mother of two who is a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe — as well as a descendant of the Karuk and Yurok tribes — was last seen leaving a friend’s house in the Pecwan area on foot on the morning of Oct. 14, 2021 and reportedly was en route to Klamath. Last weekend, a large-scale three-day search was conducted on Yurok tribal lands for Risling including the first-time use of cadaver sniffing dogs.
“The No. 1 thing (she cared about) was her children, but also her native culture. She had been accepted in grad school and she planned to go on and become an attorney. And, of course, always with in mind to help her people from her, her tribe from her. Judy Risling, Emmilee’s mother, told the Times-Standard.
Risling is one of five cases since 2020 where Indigenous women went missing or were killed between San Francisco and Oregon, and the Yurok Tribe declared a state of emergency in December 2021 for missing and murdered Indigenous people. Indigenous women go missing or are murdered at rates higher than any other ethnic group in the United States.
Risling graduated from the University of Oregon in 2014 with a degree in political science and attended McKinleyville High School, where Judy Risling said she was a straight-A student, highly motivated and cared for the people around her.
However, Risling also struggled with mental illness and experienced domestic violence, which Judy Risling said eventually caused her to self-medicate, further exacerbating her mental health issues. In 2021, she was arrested and accused of Arson.
“Our justice system was a failure for Emmilee. She had gotten arrested for Arson and the judge was like, ‘well, she doesn’t have a record, we’ll let her go.’ We thought that was our golden ticket to get her some mental health help,” Judy Risling said.
“The judge had talked about an ankle bracelet that didn’t come to fruition, and then it was just a matter of days before she disappeared,” she added.
Risling stayed briefly at the Sempervirens, Humboldt County’s mental health facility, but she was released without serious treatment of her mental health struggles, her family said.
Now, Judy and Gary Risling, Emmilee’s parents, are raising her children, 10-year-old David and 21-month-old Josephine.
While the large-scale search over the weekend of roughly half the Yurok Reservation did not find Risling, the use of additional resources such as the cadaver dogs were spurred by the intervention of the Jon Francis Foundation, whose founder David Francis read an article about Risling’s disappearance in the Associated Press and moved his organization’s resources to help.
With the assistance of the Hoopa Tribe, the areas of interest in the search for Risling have been significantly narrowed down.
Judy Risling said there will likely be additional searches in the future, but none are currently planned.
However, Gary Risling was frustrated with both the Yurok Tribal Police and the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office on how long it took to use dogs in the search for his daughter.
“If there would have been dogs out there, certainly after she was reported missing, there would have been some hope,” Risling said.
While there have been small searches in the months following the report of Risling’s disappearance, the search last weekend was the largest and the first to use dogs, which Gary Risling lambasted for being late, and cited jurisdictional authority discussions between the sheriff’s office and tribal police as roadblocks to finding his daughter.
“This whole whole thing has been a nightmare. The whole time, and it’s just so unnerving. Hopefully, we can get some closure in this, especially for children,” Gary Risling said.
The Yurok Tribal Police did not respond to the Times-Standard’s request for comment.
However, Yurok Tribal Judge Abby Abinanti noted that part of the issue behind the high numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous people, especially in Humboldt County, is the rural, under-resourced nature of the agencies involved in crime-solving.
“The geography is beautiful, I love my homeland, but it makes it really difficult to resolve this kind of issue without a lot of equipment, and modern, technical ability to deal with it. We don’t have that, and we as a tribe, and the county, they’re just under-resourced for what the issues are. So it’s easy to point fingers and say, ‘Well, they didn’t do this,’ but if you don’t have that technology, you’re at a significant disadvantage,” Abinanti said.
Such technology used for locating missing people includes drones, dogs, heat-seeking sensors and the personnel trained to use each.
The Yurok Tribe is currently seeking sources of funding for that type of equipment and training in order to work on cold cases, but it can also be used across departments in the county for all types of cases.
“That’s why we’re putting so much effort into getting that stuff, and if we’d had it earlier, I think you could figure out the success rate goes up the sooner you are to the event, for obvious reasons,” Abinanti said .
Abinanti also noted the Yurok Tribe is seeking funding for informed trauma work and mobile health care units to address tribal mental health, something Risling could have used.
Another part of the issue, according to Abinanti, is Public Law 280, which allows tribes to police themselves, but cuts them off from federal resources from the Bureau of Indian Affairs they can use to help abate issues facing the tribe. The Yurok Tribal Court system and Yurok Tribal Police are funded through a series of grants, including some from the US Department of Justice.
The Hoopa Valley Tribe has also been a key collaborator in the search for Risling, but the solution to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people is not the exclusive responsibility of small agencies like tribal police departments, according to Joe Davis, vice chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council.
“There needs to be a task force developed of many different state and federal agencies that have a focus on addressing these missing and murdered cases. A lot of these cases happen in really rural and remote areas, and there’s just not enough dedicated resources that are out on the ground, following up on needs, and working these cases for the amount of time and space that needs to be covered. If there was an inter-agency task force developed with state, federal and local partners, and just the creation of more of a focus on these particular cases, and probably federal, state and local financial support that could support that work. This needs to be made more of a priority by legislators,” Davis said.
May 5 was National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, but on May 4, Yurok Tribal Chairman Joseph James went before the state Assembly in Sacramento to call upon lawmakers to pass legislation to help solve the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
The Yurok Tribe’s proposals to the state include recognizing tribal police as
state peace officers, granting tribal courts and police access to California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, mandating official notices to tribes when their children go missing from foster care and mandating official reports to law enforcement and establishing a statewide alert system for missing indigenous people.
While the per-capita rate of missing and murdered Indigenous people is high, Abinanti emphasized trauma exists beyond raw numbers
“What the bigger issue is that pain and how to deal with that. How do you deal with a lost daughter? How do you deal with a lost mother? How to deal with your family saying ‘I don’t know where she went. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why she’s not buried in the cemetery with the rest of the family,’ and that hole in your life creates that higher level of pain and tends to make people less able to go forward,” Abinanti said.
Jackson Guilfoil can be reached at 707-441-0506.