The Board of Supervisors chambers were packed on Tuesday for a proclamation recognizing May 5th as Mendocino County Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People. Tribal leaders, many of them wearing red, came from all over the county to commemorate the historic proclamation.
Eighty percent of Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetimes. Homicide is the third-leading cause of death among Indigenous 10-24-year-olds. In 2022, the National Crime Information Center accounted for 5,487 Indigenous missing people. By the end of that year, 1,593 of the cases were still open, according to language on the proclamation.Proclamation
Many of the people who addressed the Board on Tuesday had deeply personal connections to someone who has been murdered.
Patrica Ray Franklin, who is from the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, the Round Valley Indian Tribes, and is also a descendant of the Cahto Tribe, told the Board that she is named after her aunt, Patricia Gayle Frasier. “My mother called her Patsy,” she recalled. “She was murdered.” She described how the killing shook the community, and expressed her gratitude for the proclamation. “It’s a start,” she concluded. “And we have to start somewhere.”
Debra Ramirez is Tribal Chairwoman of the Little River Band of Pomo Indians, in Redwood Valley. She’s also the shelter director for the women’s safe house program at Project Sanctuary, an organization that offers a full range of services to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. Native women experience both at two or three times the rates of other races. Ramirez believes collaborations among the tribes, the county, and nonprofits are already underway. She noted that the board of Consolidated Tribal Health works closely with the county’s Behavioral Health department to help people suffering from a variety of crises. “It’s being recognized by Indian Health Services, it’s being recognized by a lot of domestic violence programs, so I think we’re getting started on something strong,” she said.
She wants more help from federal agencies, though. “When you’re on federal land, this is an FBI issue…These are issues that the feds need to be recognizing that are important to the communities,” she noted. “As sovereign tribes, we’re supposed to be protected by the United States and the federal government, and we don’t believe that there’s enough resources, in terms of funding, to be able to help our communities move forward, in keeping these cases alive.”
She does think local law enforcement is recognizing — “and hopefully will be stronger in recognizing and responding to communities and to tribes, and to not drop cases. We all know, when something’s in the news, it’s right in front of us, but unfortunately in our small communities, that kind of fizzles out, and then we move on to the next horrific crime or horrific situation that’s happening in our county. So if we can keep having the conversation with our local law enforcement as tribal people and as a community, I think that’s the key right there, is to keep talking.”
Diana Billy-Elliott is vice chair of the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians. She and Supervisor Maureen Mulheren played a key role in bringing the proclamation before the Board. She, too, noted that Indigenous people go missing at far higher rates than people of other races. “And we very seldom get the news media coverage that it takes to help locate our loved ones,” she said. “My hope and my prayer is that by having this proclamation signed today, that this county will stand in solidarity with the Indigenous people who have lost loved ones that have either been murdered or have gone missing and have never been found.” Her advice to reporters covering such tragedies is to develop cultural competence. “When it comes to these types of issues that are very delicate because of the atrocities that have happened in our communities, we need to tread lightly. Sometimes, even reaching out to the leaders of the tribe of where this has taken place, to start the conversation with them, and have them identify the families and be the go-between, between the family and the outside reporters, I feel could be done in a good way.”
Billy-Elliott emphasized that each deeply personal grief, including her own, is shared by the entire community. Her son’s 2015 murder remains unsolved. “He is one of the murdered Indigenous people of Mendocino County,” she said. “Most definitely, he is always on our heart and in our mind, and will never be forgotten. Not only with my family, but in our community.”
The same is true for another speaker, who recalled a loved one he lost, fifty years ago. Jabez W. Churchill, who works as a behavioral specialist for the Pinoleville Pomo Nation, told the Board that, “My first awareness of the issue that we’re here for was 1973. My girlfriend’s body was found in an orchard up here. And that wound is still open. So this is not a new issue. It’s one that has long gone insufficiently addressed. And it’s late, but I’m glad that you are focused on it now.”
Supervisor Glenn McGourty teared up as he told the silent room, “We can’t fix old hurts. But we can go forward and try to prevent bad things from happening. We’re very much partners with you. You can see that our Board is in solidarity with you as part of our effort to keep our community safe. And that means everybody. Either everybody counts or nobody does.”