Yorok Missing Woman sheds light on the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Northern California

“I always say, ‘We don’t know what we don’t know,'” George said. “And MMIW (Missed and Killed Aboriginal Women) is a true model for this particular scenario – we just try to deal with the unanswered questions before we can even begin to answer them.”


Behind a desk covered with mugs full of pen and surrounded by art, certificates, posters and a selfie with Home Secretary Haaland, sits Abe Abenanti. More commonly known as “Judge Abe,” she is the Chief Justice of the Yorok Tribe and the first American-born female attorney in California.

“I certainly feel invisible, in the sense that they think we are invisible,” Judge Abe said. “But we were not invisible to each other and we had never seen them before.

“The hardest thing is the losses to the family.”

For tribal law enforcement, the biggest challenge is a lack of resources and a lack of public trust.

York Tribal Police Service consists of 12 personnel, including O’Rourke. His first goal, he said, was to increase the size of the department with qualified and personable officers who could be trusted by the tribesmen.

O’Rourke said the tribe today is deeply affected by an episode of intergenerational trauma.

Most of the tribesmen are unpaid. Domestic violence rates are high. O’Rourke said many deal with drug and alcohol abuse.

From the mid-17th century to the early twentieth century, boarding schools divested with the primary goal of “civilizing” or assimilating Native American children into European-American culture, stripping Native Americans of their culture and traditions, in an attempt to erase their history and identity.

It was the social workers who knocked on the doors of their families, often accompanied by a deputy, and took their children from them to send to boarding schools.

O’Rourke said that the few Aboriginal people who did return to their reservations were traumatized by the physical and sexual abuse that often occurred, and many of them experienced that unresolved trauma. Then their children grew up to be traumatized parents, and now their children are struggling, he said.

“We used to play this game called run and hide,” O’Rourke said. That day, his granddaughter ran and hid when the door was knocked.

“I really think the generational trauma has taken its toll on us,” he said.

broken system

Another key to the problem is an artifact of white paternity known as Public Law 280, a federal law that gives the state the power to enforce and prosecute. State law on tribal lands in six states: Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Wisconsin, and California.

Because Native American reservations may cover multiple counties, the law created overlapping jurisdictions, eventually causing confusion between law enforcement and the public and resulting in inconsistent response times to crime.

In 1953, when Public Law 280 was established, “the tribes were not consulted,” William F. Hunsal, Humboldt County Sheriff.

He said: “Things were imposed on the tribes only.” “And so I just think law enforcement and the tribes didn’t have a good foundation.”

Additionally, when it comes to a missing person, remoteness of custody usually means there are no witnesses, security cameras or evidence to guide their investigation, Hunsal said.

In the case of missing Riesling, mother of two Yorok, “It’s tough,” said Hunsal. “It hurts because no one wants to lose loved ones and lose them, and then for us to say, ‘There’s not much we can do. We don’t know where she is. And we have nothing to follow.”

He said the sheriff’s office supports the tribe’s vision to have a greater role in the issues of missing and murdered Indigenous women and prevention.

“Am I important?”

For families, one of the biggest problems is the feeling that law enforcement doesn’t take their cases seriously from the start.

Media coverage is nothing compared to coverage of many missing white women. The Gabe Pettito case attracted international attention last year, and the Humboldt Five, a group of similar-looking white women who went missing or were murdered in the same area between the 1990s and 2014, received widespread coverage.

“For many of these cases, there are many times Indigenous cases,” George said. “We just don’t get that coverage.”

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