YUROK RESERVATION, Calif. (AP) — The young mother had behaved erratically for months, hitchhiking and wandering naked through two Native American reservations and a small town clustered along Northern California’s rugged Lost Coast.

But things escalated when Emmilee Risling was charged with arson for igniting a fire in a cemetery. Her family hoped the case would force her into mental health and addiction services. Instead, she was released over the pleas of loved ones and a tribal police chief.

The 33-year-old college graduate — an accomplished traditional dancer with ancestry from three area tribes — was last seen soon after walking across a bridge in a remote sliver of the Yurok Reservation.

Her October disappearance is one of five instances in the past 18 months where Indigenous women have gone missing or been killed in this isolated expanse of coastline between San Francisco and Oregon. The crisis has prompted the Yurok Tribe to declare a state of emergency and brought increased urgency to efforts to build the first comprehensive database of such cases in California.

“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,” said Blythe George, a Yurok citizen and assistant sociology professor helping document the problem. “You can’t help but see yourself in those people.”

The recent cases spotlight an epidemic that is difficult to quantify but has long disproportionately plagued Native Americans.


A 2021 report by a government watchdog group found the true number of missing and murdered Indigenous women is unknown due to reporting problems, distrust of law enforcement and jurisdictional conflicts. But Native American women face murder rates almost three times those of white women overall — and up to 10 times the national average in certain locations, according to a 2021 summary of research by the National Congress of American Indians. More than 80% have experienced violence.

Emmilee is an enrolled Hoopa Valley tribal member who traces her ancestry to the Yurok and Karuk nations.

Many see in her story the ugly intersection of the trauma inflicted on Native Americans by their white colonizers and their marginalization in a justice system established by European conquerors. Her case has shaken the community but gotten no outside attention.

Virtually all of the area’s Indigenous residents, including Emmilee, have relatives who were sent to boarding schools as children as part of a government assimilation campaign. That trauma echoes in the form of drug abuse and domestic violence that sends a disproportionate number of children to foster care, said Judge Abby Abinanti, chief judge of the Yurok Tribal Court.

An analysis by the Yurok and Sovereign Bodies Institute, an Indigenous-run research and advocacy group, found most of the region’s missing Indigenous women had been in foster care themselves or had children taken from them.

“You say, ‘OK, how did we get to this situation where we’re losing our children?’” said Abinanti. “There were big gaps in knowledge, including parenting, and generationally those play out.”


For years, Emmilee was a source of pride for her family and the region, learning the dances that knit the community to generations of tradition.

Her family has the rare distinction of owning enough regalia that it can perform the group dances without borrowing any adornment. At 15, she traveled to Washington, D.C., for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Emmilee attended the University of Oregon on a scholarship and helped lead a prominent Native student group. When she became pregnant, she had the baby and then completed her degree.

She then took a job back home working with disadvantaged families, and doted on her son.

But over time, her family says, they noticed changes.

Emmilee showed up late for work and became combative, then fell in with an abusive boyfriend. She gave birth to a daughter in 2020, but ultimately lost custody of both her children.

Her parents, bewildered by her rapid deterioration, think she developed a mental illness compounded by drug use and domestic abuse.


Emmilee was picked up many times by sheriff’s deputies and tribal police, but never charged, as she walked naked in public. The only in-patient psychiatric facility within 300 miles (480 kilometers) was always full. Once, she was taken to the emergency room and fled in her hospital gown.

“People tended to look the other way,” said Judy Risling, her mother. “There were just no services for her.”

In September, Emmilee was arrested after she was found by a small fire in the Hoopa Valley Reservation cemetery.

Her family and the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s police chief asked a Humboldt County judge to keep her in custody and get her help, but she was released. Her public defender argued she had no criminal convictions and couldn’t be detained because of her mental state alone.

Days later, Emmilee disappeared.

One of the biggest hurdles in Indian Country once a woman is reported missing is unraveling who is in charge amid a jumble of federal, state, local and tribal police departments.

Emmilee’s case illustrates the complexities: She was a citizen of the Hoopa Valley Tribe and was arrested on its reservation, but she went missing on the neighboring Yurok Tribe’s reservation. The Yurok Police Department is in charge of the investigation, but the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department will decide when to declare the case cold.


Recent efforts at the state and federal level seek to address some of the challenges.

Former President Donald Trump signed a bill that required federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement agencies to create or update their protocols for handling cases. President Joe Biden signed an executive order to set up national law enforcement guidelines that would help track, solve and prevent crimes against Native Americans.

A number of states, including California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona, are also taking on the crisis with studies, funding for tribes or proposals to create Amber Alert-style notifications.

Emmilee’s family, meanwhile, is struggling to protect her children, now 10 and almost 2, from the trauma of their mother’s disappearance.

The boy has been having nightmares and recently voiced everyone’s worst fear.

“It’s real difficult when you deal with the grandkids, and the grandkid says, ‘Grandpa, can you take me down the river and can we look for my mama?’ What do you tell him? ‘We’re looking, we’re looking every day,’” said Gary Risling, choking back tears.

“And then he says, ‘What happens if we can’t find her?’”


Associated Press Video Journalist Manuel Valdes in Seattle contributed to this report.