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Unseen: Missing, murdered Indigenous women in California part of nationwide crisis

Missing, murdered Indigenous women in California part of nationwide crisis
Missing, murdered Indigenous women in California part of nationwide crisis 03:38

Unseen: A California crisis of missing, murdered Indigenous women - Part 1

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KLAMATH, Del Norte County -- It is a brutal and silent crisis: the growing number of missing or murdered Indigenous women across the U.S., including right here in California. Many of these cases are under investigation and remain unsolved.

Northern California is known for its remote, rugged beauty. But there is a deepening sense of dread under the canopy of majestic redwoods and isolated stretches of beach. Indigenous women are going missing and many of them are winding up dead.

"I got a phone call one day that my daughter was missing, that nobody could find her," said Yurok Tribe Council Chief Phillip Williams.

"'Where is my mom? Where is my mom?' And you have to say to them, 'I don't know honey, I don't know,'" said Yurok Chief Judge Abby Abinanti.

California is home to the largest Native American population in the United States. Staggering statistics from the Sovereign Bodies Institute show 84% of Indigenous women living on reservations experience some form of violence and are ten times more likely to be murdered, while 40% of victims exploited in sex trafficking operations are indigenous.

Many of these cases are tangled up with domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental illness. As to why these women are so vulnerable, it's complicated, but one factor involves a brutal legacy of California's history.

"You're looking at the massacres of which there were a number," said Abinanti. "You're looking at boarding schools, and you're looking at indentured slaves."

For nearly two centuries, the U.S. government forcibly removed Indian children from their families and put them into hundreds of boarding schools across the country. The goal: to assimilate them into white culture.

Twelve federal schools were in California, where children were stripped of their language, religion, and tribal identities - often under the threat of bodily harm.

The damage persists.

"All of us have dealt with that historic trauma of targeted legislation to forced assimilation, forcible removal of children from homes," said Yurok Police Chief Greg O'Rourke.

Another major factor is a congressional law passed in the 50s as a way to save money, known as Public Law 280. It mandates that in California, all major crimes committed on Indian territory will be handled - not by tribal police - but by the state; in this case, the local sheriff.

"The tribe has essentially been told 'Well you can't have jurisdiction for certain things. The county's in charge of that but we're not going to give the county any extra money,'" said Yurok Tribe Chief Prosecutor Rosemary Deck.

There's no accurate count on the number of missing or murdered Indigenous women in California. Only 9% of the murders are solved. The resources are scarce, and the mistrust runs deep.

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