A rejected inheritance

Native American woman from Sacramento achieved her dream in Arizona—then met an all too common end

Jessica Mae Orozco with her nephew James following her graduation from Claremont Graduate University.

Jessica Mae Orozco with her nephew James following her graduation from Claremont Graduate University.

Photo courtesy of Cassie Marie

When the time comes, much sooner than anyone expected, Jessica Mae Orozco’s ashes will be interred in Reno, Nev.—not in Sacramento, where she grew up, and not in Arizona, where her friends thought the 31-year-old botanist escaped the perils that haunt many of her indigenous sisters.

But then October 27 came, with her knock on a door and the bullet that answered.

“She ended up being killed,” said Morning Star Gali, a friend who lives in Sacramento County. “You do everything you’re supposed to do and that doesn’t keep you from being murdered as a native woman.”

For Gali, it feels like a cruel tilt toward inevitability—that she and her peers can make all the right choices and still not outrun a 600-year history of colonization, subjugation and handed-down abuse. There’s not enough comprehensive data telling her otherwise and too many stories to the contrary, including her own.

Looking to escape a dangerous situation in her tribal homelands, Gali said, she arrived in Sacramento County less than a year ago. A member of the Pit River Tribe and a fellow with the progressive leadership fund Leading Edge, Gali said one of her many goals is to create a safe space for indigenous women to discuss and confront trauma.

“There’s a rule that we don’t talk about what happens in our families, what happens in our communities,” Gali said, referring to the lasting trauma from Indian boarding schools.

It can be difficult when the mainstream doesn’t ask to hear those stories. The piecemeal information that exists suggests a pattern of trauma, as prolific as it is normalized. According to an eight-year-old federal survey on domestic and sexual violence, 83 percent of indigenous adults experienced some form of violence in their lifetimes.

A woman of Navajo descent, Orozco—by all accounts successful and thriving, both in her career and personal life—avoided the disproportionately common pitfalls. And yet violence claimed her anyway. A new report about the risks tribal women face in American cities indicates her story was the exception until it became the rule.

The Urban Indian Health Institute, a tribal epidemiology center based in Seattle, this month published its report, “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls.”

UIHI cross-referenced law enforcement records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests with state and national databases, media coverage, social media posts and other sources to weave a snapshot of death and disappearance of American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in urban centers, where the majority of indigenous people live. In the 71 cities studied, including 12 in California, UIHI identified 506 cases—most since 2000—including 153 cases that hadn’t been recorded by law enforcement.

A lack of media coverage was also a common theme. UIHI only found news stories in 14 percent of the cases it identified. Zero were recorded in California’s capital: Of the 10 killings and three unsolved disappearances that UIHI says it identified in Sacramento, none received media coverage.

Annita Lucchesi, a coauthor of the report and a doctoral student of cartography, cautioned in an email that the records from Sacramento police were difficult to interpret, “in part because they sent records of at least 5 cases regarding Indian-American victims (last names like Prasad and Singh).

“When we asked for clarification, the agency responded by saying that those people may have been biracial (Indian American and American Indian),” continued Lucchesi, who is creating an online database chronicling missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in North America dating back to 1900. “That’s a compelling example of the kind of misclassification issues the report addresses.”

Indeed, the California Department of Justice doesn’t include an ethnic classification for American Indians in its annual homicide report, restricting its racial categories to white, black, Hispanic or other.

One of the few local statistics available focuses on domestic violence. Since opening in July 2016 and through August of this year, the Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center has served 30 clients of American Indian or Alaska Native descent, according to a recent report to the Board of Supervisors. That amounts to 1.3 percent of the center’s more than 2,300 total clients, which is on par with Native American representation in Sacramento County’s population, census figures show.

Though Orozco’s life started in Sacramento, it was taken in Arizona, where UIHI catalogued 54 cases of missing or slain indigenous women, the third highest total among the 10 states UIHI examined. (California ranked sixth with 40 cases.)

Orozco was shot once just before midnight on October 27, a Saturday. According to news reports and interviews with friends, Orozco was dropping off her adopted son’s friend at a house in Kingman following the son’s birthday celebration. Both children were outside the home when a bullet pierced the front door, striking Orozco, who died hours later at a nearby hospital. The alleged shooter, Gerald Richardson, 57, of Golden Valley, reportedly told investigators he was asleep inside the home and wasn’t expecting anyone when he heard what he believed was an intruder.

Friends expressed disbelief at that story.

“These were her family and friends,” Gali said of the alleged killer. “These weren’t strangers.”

Richardson was being held in Mohave County jail on Tuesday. He faces one count of second-degree murder, online court records show.

Orozco’s Facebook page says she studied science at American River College in Sacramento and later attended San Francisco State University before obtaining her master’s degree in botany from Claremont Graduate University in Southern California.

Gali described Orozco as an unequivocal success story, someone who managed to avoid the volatile relationships that are uncommonly common within tribal communities, a nasty postscript to colonization.

“She didn’t put herself in violent situations,” Gali said.

Orozco overcame other struggles, friends said, including losing the grandmother who raised her and her mother within a year of each other. She adopted a nephew from her sister, who battled addiction and homelessness. The nephew was placed in foster care following Orozco’s death, with surviving family members trying to regain custody, according to social media posts. A GoFundMe page for Orozco’s memorial expenses and her adopted son had raised nearly $33,000 toward its $75,000 goal as of November 27.

Knowledge of Orozco’s death quickly spread beyond the northwestern Arizona borders of the Hualapai Nation, a federally recognized tribe that employed Orozco as its rangeland specialist. Three days after the fatal shooting, the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office said on its Facebook page that it had received “a high volume of phone calls” regarding the incident and was referring further questions to Orozco’s next of kin.

Friends remembered Orozco as filled with an intoxicating sense of wonder for the natural world. One told SN&R that Orozco always wore a magnifying glass connected to her beaded necklace, and couldn’t walk two feet without stopping to examine the plants sprouting up around her.

Earlier this month, Orozco’s partner Brandon Havatone shared a post through her Facebook account, with its 1,422 friends: “today is the day we bring Jessica Orozco home. Let’s remember her as she was, bubbly, full of life, Plants Not Pants!”

In another Facebook post, the Native American Rangelands Advisory Committee honored Orozco as an emerging leader within the Society for Range Management.

“There are no words to describe how we felt about belonging to her,” the post read. “While we mourn her loss, please join us in celebrating her bright countenance and brave perseverance, and let us be torch-bearers for her contagious enthusiasm.”

Gali said she was helping look for a missing indigenous girl in Oakland when she learned Orozco had been killed. A month later, she was still coming to terms with the news.

“She accomplished so much and had so much more she planned to [do],” Gali wrote in a Facebook message.