California is in a moment of long-overdue reckoning with the state’s original sin — the blood-soaked treatment of the people who inhabited this land long before any white settlers ever dreamed of Manifest Destiny.
In recent months, we’ve seen Gov. Gavin Newsom issue a formal apology that refused to mince words (“It’s called genocide. That’s what it was,” the governor said), along with a rethinking of the symbolism of mission bells.
In 1860, Indian Island in Humboldt Bay was purchased without the consent of the Wiyot people, just days before an unthinkable massacre almost decimated the tribe. Nearly 160 years later, Indian Island was effectively returned to the Wiyot when the city of Eureka deeded more than 200 acres over to tribe during a signing ceremony on Monday.
Historically, “the island was home [to the Wiyot tribe] for at least 1,000 years, according to an archaeologist, and since time immemorial, according to the tribe,” as Humboldt County alt-weekly the North Coast Journal put it.
This rectification of sins past has been a long time coming.
Eureka has owned the majority of the island since the 1950s. Cheryl A. Seidner, a former tribal chairwoman, and current Wiyot cultural liaison told me over the phone that an effort to regain the sacred land had been underfoot since the 1970s.
In 2000, the tribe bought 1.5 acres of land on the eastern edge of the island for $106,000 — a sum raised tirelessly over the course of several years by selling fry bread, T-shirts and $10 posters, among other things. The city deeded 40 more acres to the tribe in 2004, but still controlled the majority of the land on the island.
The Eureka City Council voted to return its remaining 202 acres to the Wiyot in December 2018, and it was made official during Monday’s ceremony. There are a handful of remaining private homes on the island, but the vast majority of the island is now in tribal hands.
“Indian Island was the center of our world,” Seidner said. “That’s where we would go to pray. That’s where we would have ceremonies.”
The 1860 massacre was an event so horrific that it garnered national attention even in those Wild West days of early California statehood. It continues to stain the annals of the state record as “one of the most notorious massacres in California history,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. As the Wiyot completed their weeklong world renewal ceremony, with many of the men away gathering supplies, a small group of white settlers made their coordinated, vicious attack on multiple Wiyot communities. Somewhere between 60 and 250 people — primarily women, children and the elderly — were slaughtered. The perpetrators were known locally but never faced formal charges.
There was extensive environmental contamination on the site when the tribe reacquired that first parcel of land in 2000. From the 1870s to the 1990s, a ship repair facility had operated on the island, leaving a toxic legacy of paints, solvents, metals and petroleum products on the sacred earth. “The tribe spent years and years doing restoration work,” tribal administrator Michelle Vassel said.
In recent years, candlelight vigils have been held every February to coincide with the anniversary of the massacre. “Those vigils brought out a lot of people, both Indian people, and non-Indian people, and I think that they were really a part of the healing process,” Vassel said, explaining that the environmental restoration work had also been a part of that healing process.
On Monday evening, Steve Watson, Eureka’s chief of police, took to Facebook to reflect on what he had witnessed earlier in the day at the transfer ceremony. “It may have been 160 years too late, but returning the island to the tribe was the right thing to do,” Watson wrote. “While no one living today is personally responsible for those terrible events (the massacre and the theft of the island etc.), we as a community had the moral obligation and present ability to right an incalculable wrong in a meaningful way that exceeds mere symbolism.”
And what has long been locally known as Indian Island will now be, “The village side was called Tuluwat, so now the island itself is going to be dedicated as Tuluwat Island,” Seidner explained.
Los Angeles Times