“It’s called genocide. That’s what it was,”

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

Our Idea for the center of the Arcata Plaza

Organizer Chris Peters of Seventh Generation Fund said to the crowd gathered on the plaza that “settler colonialism” “savaged, raped and killed” indigenous people who already settled this area long before European expansion. Peters then expressed frustration about how the push to remove the statue and plaque comes up every few years and nothing gets done after the public pressure relieves. Invoking the image of Saddam Hussein statue being toppled, Peters said “put a rope around its neck and pull it down,”

We couldn’t agree more, but just pulling it down isn’t enough for us.

We want to see something that honors the areas, indigenous residents.

This is what we’d like to see in the middle of the plaza  

Columbus, Genocide and “The Doctrine of Discovery”

Has we all agonized through another shameful Columbus Day yesterday, we came upon this great piece by Rebecca Nagle on ThinkProgress


The 15th-century doctrine that let Columbus ‘discover America’ is now the basis of Indian policy

The Supreme Court turned a backward, racist papal bull into American law. It’s preventing this country from confronting a genocide.


On October 12, 1993, I sat in my first-grade classroom with a mountain of Popsicle sticks on my desk. I had just been taught that Columbus was a super great guy, and we would be building models of the Pinta and Santa Maria out of the sticks. Because he was very brave and knew he was right about the earth being flat, the lesson went, he sailed all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and “discovered” America. I raised my hand. “If Columbus had never come here, my family would still have our land.”

The fight to change the elementary school version of Columbus’ story isn’t just a symbolic fight. For us as Native Americans, it is the fight to reject the incredibly racist legal framework under which we still live. The same 15th-century doctrine that allowed Columbus to “discover Hispanola” (and gave his army license to rape, murder, and enslave Taino people) is the basis of U.S. federal Indian policy today. The Doctrine of Discovery has been cited in Supreme Court Cases as recently as 2005 and by 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2014.

While the international Indigenous community has been calling for the denouncement of the Doctrine of Discovery for decades, most Americans don’t even know what it is. It first appeared in 1455 as a papal bull giving Portugal permission to invade and colonize West Africa. After Columbus’s infamous voyage to the Caribbean, a similar papal bull was extended to Spain in 1493.

The Doctrine of Christian Discovery asserted simply that Christian Nations became the rightful owner of any land they found occupied by non-Christian people. Europeans used this international law, grounded in the racist presumption of European superiority, to colonize most of the earth. What followed was the kidnapping and enslavement an estimated 12.5 million African people and the systematic genocide of an estimated 90 million indigenous people (90 percent of the pre-genocide population of the Americas). In 1982, when Spain proposed to the UN General Assembly that the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s voyage should be marked by celebration, the entire African delegation walked out.

The Doctrine of Discovery was codified into U.S. law by the Supreme Court the same decade my tribe was forcibly removed from our homelands to “Indian Territory” on the “Trail Where They Cried”, now known as the Trail of Tears. In the 1832 Johnson v. M’Intosh decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice Marshall wrote that “discovery gave title to the government” and that “the Indigenous inhabitants were then left with only a ‘right of occupancy,’ which United States courts have ruled, could be terminated at will by the federal government.” In other words, Native people are tenants.

As recently as 2005, Justice Ginsberg — a liberal icon of the left — cited the Doctrine of Discovery in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation of Indians, stating that the Oneida Indian Nation could not exert sovereignty over land within their 1794 treaty territory the tribe had bought back. In the first footnote of her decision, Ginsberg cites the Doctrine of Discovery stating “…the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign – first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States.”

The attack on tribal sovereignty and the diminishment of the rights of Native Nations has real and current consequences for the lives of Native people. Today, four out of five Native women in the U.S. will be raped, stalked, or abused in their lifetime, and one in three of us are raped, stalked, and abused every year. The majority of perpetrators (9 out of 10) are non-Native, but because of a Supreme Court decision that cited the doctrine of discovery (Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 1978), Native Nations are prohibited from prosecuting non-Natives who commit crimes on our lands.

My tribe, Cherokee Nation, has its own constitution, citizens, land, and government. Our right to self-govern pre-dates the existence of the United States. Our right to our land pre-dates the creation of the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and even Columbus. In Christian mythology, humans were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Our creation story tells us how the mountains where we lived were first formed. We were living in our Eden at the time when Europeans came to claim it.

When discussing the genocide of Native Americans, the most important thing to remember is that it didn’t work: We are still here. As the late Wilma Mankiller, principal chief of Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995 stated, “One of the most powerful countries in the world as a policy first tried to wipe us off the face of the earth. And then, failing that, instituted a number of policies to make sure that we didn’t exist… as a culturally distinct group of people, and yet here we are. Not only do we exist, but we’re thriving and we’re growing, and we’re learning now to trust our own thinking again and dig our way out.”

I am currently working with leaders from the Baltimore American Indian Center and Native American Lifelines to change the name Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day in Baltimore. When we sit down with our City Council representatives, we hand them a fact sheet detailing Columbus’ known abuses. In his own journals, Columbus graphically describes raping indigenous women and sex-trafficking children (“those from nine to ten are now in demand.“) His men would cut of the hands of Taino people who did not bring them the required amount of gold, tying their severed hands around their necks. Within 50 years of Columbus landing on the island, 95 percent of the Taino population had died. A genocide.

Last week, an Italian-American man told me flatly I was wrong about Columbus, because the man holds a Ph.D in history. After the Nazi holocaust, Germany passed laws that prohibited denying that genocide happened. In contrast, in the United States, people are still afraid to confront the truth about this country’s own genocide of Native Americans. The laws that limit our rights as Native people and Native Nations are only possible in a country whose public denies what has happened to us.

Rebecca Nagle is a citizen of Cherokee Nation and a writer and organizer living in Baltimore.