Friday, December 1, 2023

‘We’re Past Awareness; We Need Solutions’: Mendocino County Tribal Leaders, Law Enforcement, and Others Discuss California’s Missing and Murdered

Round Valley’s Vice President Lewis Whipple, Yurok Tribes Joe James, Humboldt County Sheriff Billy Honsal, California Attorney General Rob Bonta, and other tribal representatives [Photograph from Assembly James C. Ramos’s Facebook page]

Today at 10:00 a.m. members of California’s Native American Caucus, tribal leaders from around the state including those from Round Valley and the Yurok Tribe, Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal, and State Attorney General Rob Bonta amongst others gathered to discuss the state’s response to the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people.

Gathered on the western steps of California’s Capitol Building in Sacramento, the cross-section of speakers stood united in their recognition of the state’s disproportionate numbers of missing and murdered indigenous peoples and the need to develop new strategies and relationships to bring justice and healing to Indian Country.

The press conference was organized by Assemblymember James C. Ramos of California’s 40th District, the first Native American to serve in California’s assembly. 

A report from the Sovereign Bodies Institute found that 107 missing and murdered cases originated from Northern California. Young indigenous women are particularly the victims. The average age of missing and murdered Indigenous women is 26.5 years old.

Round Valley Tribal Council Vice President Lewis Whipple took the podium and offered a grim picture of his ancestral land. Looking back at the trauma his people have experienced, Vice President Whipple said, “Round Valley, you would never think the impossible is possible until it happens to one of our own.”

He reminded the public of the well-known Round Valley case of Khadijah Britton “a Wylacki citizen and a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribe who was last seen on February 8, 2018.” Sadly, she is still missing four years later.

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Vice President Whipple told the audience about Kaiden Britton, a 20-year-old Round Valley man who was taken at gunpoint, robbed, and assaulted in New Mexico in the last two weeks. Another tragic case Vice President Whipple described was “one of our daughters kidnapped, raped, and bound by barbed wire, left for dead in an open field.”

In the past few years, Whipple said, “We lost approximately 125 of our own to COVID-19, overdoses, murders, and disappearances,” 

Vice President Whipple offered a pointed rebuke of the news media for its lack of interest in reporting on missing and murdered indigenous peoples. He suggested this could be because his people “Don’t possess the American look.” He reminded the public that his tribe’s features are “more American than any demographic on the continent.”

He offered that today could be an opportunity to “band together and bring attention to our tribal communities. Today, we say it’s enough.”

The Yurok Tribe, whose reservation runs between Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, was represented by Chairman Joe James who described his tribal leadership as declaring a state of emergency in response to a spate of missing persons and attempted human trafficking incidents on the reservation and in Arcata. Chairman James said the marked rise in stalking incidents and tribal women being victimized by traffickers leaves his community reeling from trauma. Though appreciative of the awareness being brought to missing and murdered indigenous people, Chairman James declared, “We’re past awareness, now. We need actions and solutions, now.”

Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal spoke candidly about the multiple “disturbing” cases of missing and murdered indigenous people within his jurisdiction. He recognized that generational issues associated with law enforcement’s investigation of tribal lands hindered the solving of these cases.

Sheriff Honsal promised to “stand with our tribal communities. He told those assembled in Sacramento, “I stand with the other fifty-eight sheriffs. We will continue to work together on this problem, which we know will not go away overnight.”

Honsal expressed appreciation to Assemblyman Ramos for helping pass Bill 3099 which opened up California’s Indian County to concurrent criminal jurisdiction meaning the state can enforce its criminal laws on reservations and allow the state’s Department of Justice to assist in criminal investigations. Honsal said this would allow the “Department of Justice to come in and offer technical assistance and training we need in our rural areas of California.”

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Another piece of legislation Sheriff Honsal expressed gratitude for is Savannah’s Law, a federal law that has brought more resources to law enforcement allowing resources from federal entities to assist in investigations on tribal land.

Sheriff Honsal concluded by promising that “we will work together and we will work to solve these problems.”

California State Attorney General Rob Bonta took the microphone and recognized that Indian Country’s missing and murdered men and women deserve the focus of state resources. “We must face this problem, to fix this problem,” he said.

Bonta said the neglect of California’s tribes has resulted in “too many innocent lives” lost and promised his office’s resources and partnerships in the effort to solve these problems. “We affirm our commitment to building healthier and safer communities”, Bonta told the public. 

Sara Dutschke Setshwaelothe, Chairperson of the Ione Band of Miwok Indian, argued that Indian Country’s rates of missing and murdered are directly tied to the inaccessibility to essential services such as medical care, law enforcement, and social services. “Reducing the violence demands that we address these inequities head-on,” she stated. “We need to provide critical services in Indian Country.”

Erica M. Pinto, the Chairwoman of the Jamul Indian Village, declared “Now is the time to bring our missing women home.” Law enforcement, social services, and tribal government, she explained,  must “collaborate to do what is right for our men and women who go missing.”

Chairwoman Pinto recalled a story from her uncle where the local sheriff “refused to respond to a call on my reservation.” Looking forward, law enforcement must support tribes and “do the right thing,” Pino said.

Tomorrow, May 5, 2022, is the annual Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Day–a day that represents the need for resources and support to find the missing, get justice for the murdered, and to minimize future tragedies.  

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a reporter for the Average Joe. Journalism has become a craft defined largely by city dwellers on America's coasts. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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