Thursday, July 25, 2024

‘Say Her Name’: A Remembrance of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Around the Emerald Triangle

Nine of the North Coast’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

May 5th has been established as a day to bring awareness to a well-known reality of Indian Country– its daughters face higher rates of violence, rape, and murder than most Americans. The movement known as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) was founded and shaped by women hoping to shed light on these stark realities and bring healing to their people.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs offers data that quantifies these injustices. A 2016 study by the National Institute of Justice determined four of five Native women (84.3%) have been victims of violence in their lives. 56.1% of Native women have experienced sexual violence. A Center for Disease Control and Prevention study determined that murder is the third leading cause of death for Native women.

Despite the need to focus efforts on this population, databases relied upon to catalog missing people and cold cases prove unreliable. Analysis by the National Crime Information Center in 2016 found there were 5,712 reports of missing Native women in the US Department of Justice’s federal missing person database. But, the National Missing and Unidentified Person’s System (NamUs) had only 116 of those cases logged. 

The Sovereign Bodies Institute, a non-profit research consortium dedicated to filling this informational void, characterizes Northern California as “a landscape of repeated instances of violence, so saturated that to many, it may seem unavoidable. Indeed, many Indigenous women and girls are taught it is not a question if they will be assaulted, but when and how often.”

Further complicating abuse prevention for native women are byzantine jurisdictional laws that often inhibit the efforts of tribal, local, state, or federal law enforcement from bringing perpetrators to justice.

Today is May 5— a day set aside to bring awareness to the missing and murdered indigenous women so their names and stories will not be forgotten. A common call-and-response chant heard at MMIW rallies consists of one yelling, “Say Her Name!” In response, others shout the name of one of these women, keeping her memory alive while those left behind work to bring her justice.

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In honor of May 5, we are highlighting some of the well-known cases of missing and murdered indigenous women in the Emerald Triangle. This list is not comprehensive. The number of women who have fallen under this curse within the Emerald Triangle is so high we could not possibly do all of them justice. In addition, we want to note that by focusing on women, we fail to “say the name” of the many men who have fallen victim to violence also. If you know of a missing or murdered indigenous person whose story has not been told, email us at matthewplafever@gmail.com.

Khadijah Britton (Wailaki)

Khadijah Britton [Picture from her family]

Possibly the most well-known of the Emerald Triangle’s MMIW cases, Khjadijah Britton was a 23-year-old Wailaki woman from the Round Valley town of Covelo. On February 9, 2018, Britton was taken from a friend’s home at gunpoint by her ex-boyfriend, Negie Falis, and has never been seen again. Despite an extensive investigation by the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, with support from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, her fate is unknown and her case is unsolved.  Khadijah Britton’s case has galvanized Round Valley’s MMIW movement and banners describing her case can be seen all around Northern California. Read more about Khadijah’s case here.

Andrea Jerri “Chick” White (Hoopa)

Andrea Jerri “Chick” White [Picture from the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office]

Andrea Jerri White, also called Chick White, was a 23-year-old Hoopa woman last seen hitchhiking on Highway 299 east of Humboldt County’s Blue Lake on July 31, 1991. Investigators determined White received a ride from an unknown individual driving white-over-green 1964 Chevy Impala four-door with mud/snow tires on its rear. White’s case has more recently had a resurgence of interest prompted by the advocacy of Humboldt County’s MMIW activists. Read more about Chick’s case here.

Rachel Sloan (Cahto)

Rachel Sloan [Photograph from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office]

Rachel Sloan, a member of Laytonville’s Cahto tribe, suffered from addiction after graduating from high school. She was arrested as a result and lived for short periods throughout Mendocino County’s native lands. The last time her family confirms they saw Rachel was in August 2012. In May 2013, her body was located burned inside a discarded refrigerator along State Route 162, about one mile from the intersection with Highway 101. Due to Sloan’s transient lifestyle, her family did not report her missing until May 2015. The report led to the identification of her remains in September of that year.  Read more about Rachel’s case here.

Emmilee Risling (Yurok)

Missing poster for Emmilee Risling circulated on social media

The most recent of these cases, 33-year-old Yurok woman Emmilee Risling was a graduate of the University of Oregon who had fallen prey to mental illness in the months before her disappearance. Responsible for setting fire to cemetery plots in Hoopa where officers found her naked, her family and tribe worked to find mental health services to help Risling. Risling was last seen walking on foot in the area of Weitchpec near Pecwan on October 13. Five days later, she was reported missing. The Yurok Tribe partnered with multiple agencies to conduct extensive searches for her that have proven fruitless. Read more about Emmilee’s case here.

Nicole Smith (Manchester Band of Pomo)

Nicole Smith [Picture from family]

Nicole Smith was a member of the Mendocino Coast’s Manchester band of the Pomo People. On the evening of November 18, 2017, 33-year-old Smith spent the evening with family at a mobile home on the reservation. Early the following morning around 5:43 shots rang out from outside piercing the walls of the home. A bullet struck Smith and she would succumb to the gunshot wound at the scene. A person-of-interest was identified in her death, Ramon Soto, but he would later be released from the Mendocino County Jail due to lack of evidence. Read more about Nicole’s case here.

Jennika Suazo (Tolowa)

Jennika Suazo [Picture from social media]

In December 2016, Jennika Suazo of Crescent City’s Tolowa tribe was 18-years-old and a senior at Eureka High School. She was found deceased at a home on December 9, 2016. Her cause of death was asphyxia. On December 9, 2021, the fifth anniversary of Sauzo’s death, the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office announced they had filed charges against Antony Hamilton for her murder. Read more about her case here.

Sumi Gail Juan (Hoopa)

Suma Gail Juan

Sumi Gail Juan was 32-years-old on October 29, 2010, when she was reported missing to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. Juan had last been seen by members of her family in late September or early October 2010 at the Hoopa Elementary School. She has not been seen since. Juan is considered missing under suspicious circumstances. The Two Rivers Tribue reports that before Juan’s disappearance she had been suffering from a multitude of health problems and was a victim of domestic violence. Read more about Sumi’s case here.

Vanessa Niko (Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake)

Vanessa Niko [Picture from Social media]

35-year-old Vanessa Niko, a member of the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake, was killed by her boyfriend on June 20, 2017, in Lake County. Willy Timmons was convicted of killing Niko in November 2021 by striking her head with a rock. Her death has come to represent Lake County’s connection to the greater missing and murder indigenous women crisis plaguing North Coast tribes. Read more about Vanessa’s case here.

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 Rosalina “Belle” Rodriguez (Round Valley Tribe)

Rosalina “Belle” Rodriguez [Picture from social media]

23-year-old Rosalina “Belle” Rodriguez of the Round Valley tribe was shot and killed by Jeremy Jason Freeman-Britton. Rodriguez was found deceased on Hopper Lane, north of Covelo. Initially, multiple people were arrested for the homicide and the family told the media they suspected her death might have been at the hands of multiple individuals and motivated by the valley’s multi-generation Britton-Lincoln feud that had resulted in multiple deaths. Read more about Belle’s case here.

Once again, there are many more missing and murdered indigenous peoples that called the Emerald Triangle their home. The cases above represent the multitude of stories that brought MMIW movement to being. Women, brought into communities burdened by generational trauma, who found themselves trapped in a cycle of violence they could never leave.

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
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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