Missing and murdered Indigenous people were honored at a multi-tribal ceremony at Consolidated Tribal Health in Redwood Valley Friday evening. Every table held jars of flowers and copies of the Board of Supervisors proclamation declaring May 5 a day to honor the missing and murdered. Families and friends were invited to decorate a symbolic red tree with the names of their lost loved ones.
Though the event commemorated crushing sadness and anger over the failures of the legal system and law enforcement, there were also moments of optimism, as speakers highlighted the strength of the community and shared updates on legislation to improve public safety on tribal lands.
Debra Ramirez, chair of the Little River Band of Pomo Indians, spent the week attending MMIP events in Sacramento. She spoke about how Assemblyman James Ramos is heading up an initiative to amend a bill, AB 44, that would expand the amount of information that is available to tribal police, social workers, and Indian Child Welfare, or ICWA departments, as they work to solve crimes and find missing members. She also lauded the Feather Alert. That’s a new law written by Ramos requiring the California Highway Patrol to activate a system of public messages similar to the Amber Alert for missing children when Indigenous people go missing under suspicious circumstances. But she wants more federal help, too. California is subject to Public Law 280, which went into effect in 1953. This gives the state criminal jurisdiction on reservations.
“But when a crime is committed on federal land, it’s the responsibility of the federal government to move into action,” Ramirez insisted. “FBI should be alerted, not just the county or the local law enforcement, but it should also be on a federal level… And these are the things that sovereign nations should expect. But unfortunately, because we’re smaller tribes, because we’re in a rural area, we don’t get the recognition from the federal government that we should, in respect to the federal resources that we should be getting.”
Michelle Downey, a Tribal Councilwoman from Round Valley, spoke about her community’s recent declaration of a state of emergency. She called out the low number of sheriff’s deputies on patrol in the county, and the long response times when people call for help. She believes the 1953 law places responsibility for law enforcement squarely on the shoulders of the sheriff’s department.
“We brought in the violence when we allowed marijuana to be grown on our land,” she said. “And that is a situation that we’re dealing with now. But the state is a PL 280. And that needs to be taught to our Mendocino County sheriffs. And it needs to be taught to us as leaders. Maybe that’s where we need to start at. Because jurisdiction doesn’t end because I live on tribal land.”
Sheriff Matt Kendall emphasized his willingness to work with tribal leaders and said that dangerous influences, especially for young people, keep increasing, even as resources decline. “I’ve been on the phone all week with a lot of tribal leaders who are giving testimony in Sacramento, regarding the MMIP movement, and a lot of the things that rural California does not have access to, that other larger areas do,” he said. “We have to make up for that by working all together and having a good partnership.”
Downey said tribal members, not just tribal police, are working to ensure compliance with the 10:00 pm curfew for people under 18, which the Round Valley Tribal Council imposed as part of the state of emergency. A lot of it involves having hard conversations with children. “I just had this conversation with my fifth grader, and I let him know, MMIP today, what we’re celebrating, we celebrate every day. And I say celebrate, because those lives matter, and we still are remembering them.”
One of the unforgotten missing is 19-year-old Roman Elliott, whose murder in 2015 is still unsolved. His father, Orville Elliott Jr., spoke publicly for the first time about the family’s loss. “I still remember the night I got that call,” he said. “Days following that, I used to get calls from the police department, asking me if I heard anything, telling me if they heard anything. And as months went by, years went by, I never got no more calls. I feel like they had forgotten. And that’s why this tonight means so much to me. It’s proof that we haven’t forgotten. We won’t forget. I won’t forget.”
Roman’s mother, Diana Billy Elliott, the Vice Chair of the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, reminded guests of their strengths, even as they grieve. “We all know the impacts of historical trauma, and what it’s done to our people,” she reflected. “A lot of times we forget to talk about the historical resilience that as Indigenous people we have, running in our DNA. All of us.”
She said when something happens to one tribal member, it happens to all, and pledged her readiness to stand up with Round Valley. And she pointed out the importance of political allies.
“I have a lot of love and respect for James Ramos,” she declared. “He’s somebody who we can count on, at the state level, to be our voice. And when push comes to shove, being able to get in touch with the Governor’s office is something that as Indigenous voters for the Governor, he has to be kindly reminded of all of our votes that voted him into office, and not to forget about us when we call upon him in need.”
Bernadette Smith, of the Manchester Band of Pomo, found her sister Nicole Smith’s body six years ago, after she was shot with multiple small-caliber rounds. Smith spoke about the fear of that night, and the frustration as the case remains unsolved. “As you’re waiting for help, and it’s not coming, it can be the longest few minutes, hours, of your life,” she recalled.
And the family wants answers about the state of the investigation. “I assume that it takes us knocking at the door of the sheriff’s department, raising banners, and causing a big ruckus for them to take attention to us,” she said. “We don’t want to have to do that each time. We don’t need to hoot and holler and gather and make a big noise, just to get a little bit of justice towards our situation.”
As the light faded, the families stood and lit candles and recited the names of 22 missing and murdered tribal members. Chair Ramirez reminded everyone that California has more Native Americans than any other state. “And when we all come together, we could move mountains,” she promised.