The unprecedented repatriation of the center of the Wiyot universe
November 21, 2019 9:49 PM   Subscribe

In February 1860, the Wiyot people were massacred during an annual ceremony on Duluwat island, and in other locations around Humbolt County (American Cowboy Chronicles, with some graphic descriptions), as part of a brutal land-grab by white settlers. On March 28-30, 2014, the Wiyot Tribe held its first World Renewal Ceremony since February 1860 (Lost Coast Outpost), and finally with five simple words on Oct. 21, 2019, it became official — the island was being returned to the Wiyot people (North Coast Journal). "Unanimous yes vote. Motion carries." [via Atlas Obscura]

The Wiyots were among the last natives in California to encounter white settlers (Wikipedia). They lived in and around what is now known as Eureka, California, north of the Spanish missions (California Missions Foundation) and those coastal waters were not home to otters, so the area wasn't of interest in the California Fur Rush (Found San Francisco). But with the gold rush, the Wiyot people were among thousands of native people who were massacred by white settlers (
In just 20 years, 80 percent of California’s Native Americans were wiped out. And though some died because of the seizure of their land or diseases caught from new settlers, between 9,000 and 16,000 were murdered in cold blood—the victims of a policy of genocide sponsored by the state of California and gleefully assisted by its newest citizens.

Today, California’s genocide is one of the most heinous chapters in the state’s troubled racial history, which also includes forced sterilizations of people of Mexican descent and discrimination and internment of up to 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II. But before any of that, one of the new state’s first priorities was to rid itself of its sizeable Native American population, and it did so with a vengeance.
In 1964, a National Historic Landmark plaque was placed for Indian/Gunther Island Site 67 (Tolowot), but with no information on why the location was notable. Atlas Obscura has directions on finding the site, and some history.

While the City of Eureka may celebrate the fact that it's recent "gift" is the first time in the history of our nation that a local municipality has voluntarily given back Native land absent an accompanying sale, lawsuit or court order in the U.S., it follows decades of disregard of the Wiyot people (North Coast Journal).
... when Wiyot tribal officials first called Eureka City Hall to request the return of Duluwat Island in the 1970s, they got laughter in response. When tribal elder Cheryl Seidner tried again a couple of decades later, she heard mostly stutters and stammers on the other end of the phone.
Atlas Obsura has more details on the history of Wiyot celebrations adjacent to, and later on, Duluwat island (currently called Indian Island, as seen on Google Maps):
In 1992, [Cheryl Seidner, a Wiyot tribal elder] and her sister, Leona Wilkinson, held a vigil on the last Saturday in February to memorialize the land and those who died in the massacre. It became a yearly tradition on the west side of Woodley Island, a smaller plot between Duluwat and the mainland. “You’d start with a fire and people would sing their songs and talk about healing,” Hernandez says. “It was an opportunity for people to tell their stories and remember our ancestors.” Over time the vigils attracted as many as 300 people from the greater Eureka community.
Citylab covers the next phases in more detail:
Duluwat’s return started with a purchase. In the 1990s, 1.5 acres at the northern tip of the island went up for sale, spurring a fundraising campaign by the Wiyot Tribe. They sold pins, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and posters, and rallied donors. By 2000, the tribe had raised more than $100,000 to buy the plot—but not fast enough. They missed the first deadline to put in a bid by only a few days, so the price was raised to $106,000. Again, the Wiyot fundraised until the land, finally, was theirs.
After a portion of Duluwat was purchased, it had to be cleaned. The Tuluwat Village site was once a dry dock and boat repair yard on the northeastern point of Indian Island. In 1870, Robert Gunther leased the land, which started its lengthy history of contamination, mostly related to the repair and service of boats, as noted in this EPA report (PDF).

Back to Citylab:
In 2004, the city of Eureka donated another 45 acres to the tribe.

Taking back the 202 acres that remained under city control was a feat that took 15 years to achieve. After two unanimous city council votes across two different city councils, Eureka declared Duluwat Island surplus land in December 2018. On October 21, 2019, an official transfer ceremony was held.

So how did the unprecedented happen in Eureka, a small city of 27,000 on the North Coast of California? The story is about decades of persistence by Seidner and other tribal leaders, strong partners in Eureka’s city council, and a gradual self-reckoning among Eureka locals about an ugly piece of the town’s history. But Seidner is modest.

“It was just the right time,” she said.
In 2014, Eureka drafted and distributed an apology letter, then re-drafted the letter without the apology (Lost Coast Outpost), due to concerns for liability (North Coast Journal). Some see those letters as opening the door to consider returning the island to the Wiyot (Humboldt Bay Keeper), but this recounting neglects to recognize the persistence of Cheryl Seidner and other members of the Wiyot Tribe.
posted by filthy light thief (7 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
A good start.
posted by fshgrl at 10:36 PM on November 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

I grew up north of Humboldt and the bigotry in the Northwest of California was and is intense. That this has happened at all is in many ways breathtaking. The change in our society has a long way to go but the distance we have traveled is not to be dismissed.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 1:23 AM on November 22, 2019 [9 favorites]

This is an amazing story.

It's amazing to see change in the course of a lifetime - the years between officials laughing at the idea of returning the land, to the apology letter that was circulated and then gutted, to the unanimous vote, and the standing ovation.

It's amazing to contemplate the tenacious faith of the Wiyot, especially people like Cheryl Seidner, who held on to their vision of returning that land for decades, when it must have seemed utterly impossible that it would ever happen.

Thank you so much for sharing this, filthy light thief. This has utterly transformed my mind today.
posted by kristi at 7:47 AM on November 22, 2019 [8 favorites]

I'm from the area as well, and these stories have always haunted me as I enjoy the misty, beautiful, powerful Bay. I know it can't make up for that history but this is still really neat to hear as a step toward making something better. When I run for president my slogan will be "Give People The Center Of Their Universe Back."
posted by freebird at 8:12 AM on November 22, 2019 [5 favorites]

Thanks for telling this story.
posted by clawsoon at 8:24 AM on November 22, 2019

Fascinatingly, the Wiyot language and the nearby but distantly related language Yurok were discovered in the mid-20th century to be even more distantly related to the Algonquian languages of Canada, the Midwest, and the East Coast (including Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwe, Shawnee, Munsee, Wampanoag, and Powhatan) all together forming a language family called Algic. Proto-Algic was spoken about 7,000 years ago, probably on the northwest Plateau.
posted by likethemagician at 11:18 AM on November 22, 2019 [6 favorites]

Thank you for this great post!

I had a lone, renegade teacher in high school who taught us some Native American history in northern California, including this massacre. She was not the history teacher- it was an extra curricular class in which she had mostly free reign, which sounds crazy these days.

I ended up going to a small private college in Oakland, CA and in my freshman year had a very old teacher of California history who taught an obscenely sanitized version of the settlement of California, which is both bloody enough and bonkers enough that it needs its own Deadwood/ Game of Thrones style tv series. This teacher called me a liar for mentioning this massacre, despite the existence of headlines like the ones quoted in the first link here. If I had stuck to my guns I would have failed the class and I have never forgiven myself for caving on her exams, nor forgiven her for putting me in that position. It did, however, make me realize how completely propagandized that generation was (I'm guessing she was born around 1910).

My father, who was a 6th generation Sacramento-an, had no illusions about the dirtiness of how his family ended up with land and money, though he focussed more on the injustices done to the Chinese and Japanese laborers.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:38 PM on November 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

« Older That Guy Used to Stutter   |   Crossing the Finnish line Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments