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Missing and murdered Indigenous people investigator seeks closure for Northern California tribes

Julie Oliveira is the Yurok Tribe's new Missing and Murdered Indigenous People investigator, the first role of its kind in the state.
Yurok Tribe
Julie Oliveira is the Yurok Tribe's new missing and murdered Indigenous people investigator, the first role of its kind in the state.

The Yurok Tribe has hired California’s first investigator focused solely on missing and murdered Indigenous people. JPR's Jane Vaughan speaks with Julie Oliveira about the new role.

Northern California’s Yurok Tribe declared an emergency in 2021 due to a series of missing and murdered Indigenous people, or MMIP. Recently, the tribe received a grant to hire a full-time investigator dedicated to solving these cases. Julie Oliveira is the first person to hold this role in the state. She’s a member of the Wyandotte Tribe from Oklahoma and has worked for the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office for 20 years. Now, she’s investigating current and cold MMIP cases across Far Northern California.

Jane Vaughan: To start off, why is this position needed? Can you give me some context into this crisis of MMIP in the Yurok Tribe?

Julie Oliveira: The biggest issue is that per capita, there are more missing and murdered Indigenous people than any other ethnicity in the United States. And it has been ignored for such a long time. There's, you know, the generational trauma that has gone on with Indigenous people. For a long time, it wasn't important to people, except for the people who have these open wounds of missing people and murdered people that the cases have not been solved.

JV: I understand you're going to be basically conducting inquiries into both current and cold MMIP cases. So how do you even start to approach such a massive problem? Where do you begin?

JO: Well, the first thing that I've tried to do in my head and actually had this conversation with Judy Risling, one of the folks who has a missing daughter, Emmilee Risling, I have to keep it in perspective that I can only do so much at once. But I have a list of also very cold cases that I'm going to pull those cases from whatever department they're in and look at them and see if there's any new evidence or any new people that I can go interview. Hopefully, I can give some people some closure. We already have about 20 cases on the list, and this is in less than a month. My guess is that I will hit triple digits of people in need. But what I can do in that, with that amount of cases, I have to be realistic about it.

JV: What sort of resources do you have at your disposal? Do you have a team that you're working with? Are you coordinating with other groups?

JO: I have a good support team with the prosecutor's office. We also just started a pilot program with the U.S. Marshals Service. I have spoken with local law enforcement, the Yurok Tribal Police Department, so Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, Del Norte County Sheriff's Office, Crescent City PD, all those folks are willing to give me assistance where I can get it. Also, I don't want to leave out the California Department of Justice, who have been very helpful as well. For whatever reason, the door is open and people are letting me walk through.

JV: So, how do you feel now getting started doing this?

JO: It is a mixed bag of emotions on that because especially for these older cases, there's a realistic aspect to what I'm going to find if I do find these people and what kind of news I'll be giving them. I talked with, like I said, Judy Risling yesterday, and that's one of the first parents that I've spoken to. And it was an emotional conversation because she has, her tiniest bit of hope is that her daughter is in a sex trafficking ring and still alive. But the other part to her, the 98% of her thought process, is if I find her daughter, I will not find her alive. And that is sad. But it also gives her something that she doesn't have right now, which is some actual closure on at least knowing where she is. A lot of these folks were having some issues and didn't have resources at their disposal when it was needed. And then they ended up becoming vulnerable people who disappear. But prior to their whatever issues started to happen, these were folks that had life, they have children that they've left behind, and they were someone's daughter, someone's mother, someone's son. So it is important.

JV: Julie, thank you for speaking with me today.

JO: Thank you for the opportunity.

Jane Vaughan is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. Jane began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media.