Coming Home: The Wiyot Tribe Gets Back Sacred Land
This augmented account of the transfer of 40 acres of Indian Island from the City of Eureka to the Wiyot Tribe on June 25, 2004, and events leading up to it, first appeared in News from Native California, Fall 2004. It was an historical moment, not only for the North Coast of California, but in North America. So I thought it was worth making and preserving a detailed record.
The efforts to reclaim Indian Island, are ongoing, requiring a lot of environmental cleanup. Progress on those efforts is noted here on the Wiyot Tribe web site.
Cheryl Seidner was driving in Connecticut when she began praying for good weather in Eureka the next day. She was leaving the National Congress of American Indians, on her way to the airport and across the country. In less than 24 hours, she would be riding across Humboldt Bay in a redwood canoe to sign papers as tribal chair of the Wiyot at Table Bluff. Those papers would officially transfer back to the tribe 40 more acres of Indian Island, the traditional center of the Wiyot world and its most sacred site. She prayed for calm waters.
For at least a thousand years before non-Natives came into far northern California, the Wiyot gathered at Tuluwat village on what came to be known as Indian Island, often with guests from other tribes, to perform their world renewal ceremonies. In February 1860, a few settlers crossed Humboldt Bay from Eureka and brutally massacred Wiyot women and children, while the men were away gathering supplies to continue the dance. It was one of three coordinated attacks that day that almost wiped out the Wiyot, whose traditional lands spread across some 40 square miles surrounding Humboldt Bay, including the present cities of Eureka and Arcata. The Wiyot have not danced on the island since.
Denied federal recognition as a tribe in the 1950s, the Wiyot reorganized at the Table Bluff reservation and regained official tribal status in 1990. A few years later, Cheryl Seidner---a direct descendant of the only known survivor of the Indian Island massacre---began an annual candlelight vigil commemorating her ancestors, together with Maryle Rhode, president of the Humboldt County Historical Society, and Peggy Betsels, then pastor of Eureka's United Church of Christ. The February vigils are open to everyone, and soon grew from some 75 people to several hundred, including members of other tribes and non-Natives. So began two journeys: the Wiyot's revival, and efforts at reconciliation between the Wiyot and the non-Native community.
after the Eureka City Council vote, with Cheryl Seidner and Leona Wilkinson in center
In the year 2000, after several years of fundraising, the Wiyot purchased 1.5 acres of Indian Island, the location of Tuluwat Village itself. There was some confusion about the legal borders of this purchase, and it was in the process of clarifying them with Eureka city officials that the longstanding discussions leading to the larger land transfer began in earnest. "That was about a year and a half ago,"Cheryl recalls. "But the real hard core stuff, with attorneys and things like that, started around Thanksgiving."
The city of Eureka owns most of Indian Island, except for a few private residences. The 40 acres deeded back include the Wiyot burial grounds and shell midden. The negotiations, Cheryl said, "were all done in good faith. Everybody was working to make sure it was going to come out right." The land is to be developed as a sacred site, and not for commercial or residential purposes. The resulting agreement was presented to the Eureka City Council in May.
Maria Tripp (Yurok), chairperson of United Indian Health Services, told the Council, "Every tribe has a center of the world, and Indian Island is the center of the Wiyot world...The healing has begun. The return of this land to the Wiyot people will be an important step in that healing."
UIHS director Jerry Simone pointed out that their facility in Arcata was called Potawat Village, a Wiyot word for the nearby Mad River. "I strongly believe that this site on Indian Island has as much if not more to do with the healing of the Wiyot than all the health services UHIS can provide."
Those speaking in support of the resolution included representatives of Mike Thompson, Member of U.S. Congress for the district, and Wesley Chesbro, state Senator for the district; John Wooley, Humboldt County Board of Supervisors; a representative of Roland Richmond, President of Humboldt State University, and the vice-president for academic affairs from College of the Redwoods; the Humboldt County superintendent of schools, and Peter Pennecamp, executive director of the Humboldt Area Foundation.
Several private citizens also spoke in favor, including Jan Kraepelien, who worked behind the scenes to encourage the transfer. He complimented Eureka City Manager David Tyson. "This simply would not have been possible without his courage, understanding, and patience," Jan said. "He is the very model of a dedicated public servant acting in the best interests of the community."
Each member of the City Council present spoke in favor, most with visible emotion. The resolution passed unanimously, and June 25 was set as the date for the official signing. The voluntary transfer of land, especially a sacred site, from a municipality back to its indigenous people, may never have happened in California before. It's safe to say that even in all of North America, it is a rare event.
So on the morning of June 25, Cheryl Seidner got ready. She brought a ceremonial basket cap and buckskin shawl to wear, both of them designed and made for her by her sister, Leona Wilkinson. She wore two necklaces. One was made from abalone beads belonging to her grandmother, Hazel James. The other had been made for her several years earlier by Eureka school children. Later she would wear one more-a large dentilium necklace with cobalt blue beads given to the Wiyot tribe that day by the Elk Valley reservation.
Julian Lang (Karuk, whose great great grandmother was Wiyot) took on the challenge of developing a meaningful Native component for the transfer event, to be held at the Adorni Center on the Eureka waterfront.
He began with the idea of something based on a traditional boat dance. "Not really a boat dance," he said, "but as a model from within our Native cultures that we could use for this event." The crossing of the waters is a journey to the afterlife, and so it links the present and people today with the past and the ancestors on Indian Island. It could also suggest a journey to unity among Native peoples, and reconciliation of all peoples. "It's symbolic, based on our cultural knowledge."
Julian began by approaching Walt Lara (Yurok) with the idea. " He said, 'count me in. It's really important, and an Indian presence is incredibly important in this case, especially because we are the dancemaker families, the dancemaker people within our Indian community, and it's our job.' He made it a possibility."
Walt Lara would bring the redwood canoe made in the late 1990s, with a grant from the Seventh Generation Fund. Julian hoped for a total of five canoes, including the oldest to still be in use, but most of them were damaged, being repaired or couldn't be properly prepared in time. Richard Myers (Yurok) volunteered a smaller dugout canoe, and the Yurok tribe provided their water marshal boat as an escort. "But ten boats or two boats, it doesn't matter," Julian said. "It's the same thing. It's the way our ceremonies work."
Julian consulted others about various elements of the event. "We reached out to include many ceremonial folks from all the tribes, because we are related not by blood but by ceremony. They were inspiring at every stage. Everybody recognized the significance of the event---not as a civic or government to government event, but as a Native American event, bringing together the past and the present in healing. As it got closer, I realized these people were really important people who made it an incredibly big event, full of meaning. It just blossomed. It said, this is who we are today."
Cheryl agreed. "It needed to have something to do with who we are, where we are coming from, and what we plan to be doing with our lives from that point forward."
Most who became involved were present on Indian Island that morning. After the television crew and reporter from the Associated Press were gone, they gathered for prayer. Then for the first time in 144 years, two redwood canoes left Indian Island. In the larger boat with Cheryl was Walt Lara and his grandson, Walt Lara III, Chris Peters (Pohlik-lah/Karuk), Jessie Sherman (Hupa, Wiyot) and Thomas Wilkinson (Wiyot.) In the smaller boat were Frank Myers, Julian Lang, Skip Lowry(Yurok, Pitt River) and Frank Tuttle (Yuki/Wailaki/Konkow Maidu, who supplied much of the regalia).
By the time they paddled across Humboldt Bay it was afternoon. The thin veils of mist hovering near the surface of the water had dissipated. In the deep blue sky only low wisps of white clouds floated in the distance across the forested mountains. It was the first sunny day after weeks of gray summer clouds. The waters were calm.
In fact, the boats made surprising progress. "We didn't know how easy it was going to be," Julian Lang said. "We thought it was going to be really hard, but those canoes just took to the water. So we were half an hour early."
They also put in at a different dock than many on shore expected. When the canoes glided past the place where the crowd had gathered, many ran along the shore to the right dock, getting doused by the Adorni Center sprinklers.
Cheryl was then escorted to the building by a group of young women from the various tribes, in traditional regalia. They sang a welcoming song. Peter La Vallee, the Mayor of Eureka also welcomed Cheryl, and Julian Lang spoke briefly. "People have come here today from the Hupa tribe, the Yurok tribe, the Karuk tribe, the Tolowa tribe as well as the Wiyot tribe---all these different tribes are represented because we are one kind of people: we are 'fix the earth' people. That's our job as human beings." (As Julian noted later, these were also the tribes most likely to have sent participants to the Wiyot "world renewal" ceremony on Indian Island, even when it was last held the night before the massacre.)
There were Indian representatives from other places as well. Cheryl said later that she had been particularly impressed by the delegation from the Redding Rancheria. "I found that very heartening that they came from a couple of counties away," she said.
Before everyone went into the building, Julian had the crowd repeat the Wiyot name for Eureka: CuruCiCi.
Once inside the auditorium that doubles as a basketball court, it became apparent that quite a few people had come to witness the signing: judging from the overflow, probably 500, and maybe more.
The Mayor of Eureka, Peter La Vallee, spoke first. "I am honored and humbled," he said. He acknowledged the wrongs done by Eureka citizens in the past. "There is a time and a place to do the decent thing, the right thing," he said, "and that time and place is right now, right here."
Cheryl began by welcoming everyone from the four directions. "I want to welcome you to Wiyot country," she said. "We are coming home to our island. In 1860 people did not see fit for us to live. But this City Council, they beg to differ. They said, come, let us be together. And the Wiyot said, this is what we want..." She spoke of the Wiyots' desire to have all 175 acres of the island back eventually. "Today we get part of our island back... Each generation said we want it back. Each generation learned something new about the island, and each generation got closer..."
She said that it took many generations, all the tribes and many people of Eureka to make it happen. "It took everyone in this room, and more. We are grateful." After saying a prayer in the Wiyot language she repeated it in English. "We thank you for our differences and our different ways. We thank you for the Wiyot people who are coming back, who are coming back to life, CuruCiCi. It's been a long day coming."
The agenda for the rest of the event was short, with a few Eureka officials and government representatives, including state representative Patty Berg, scheduled to speak. But a spontaneous decision to bring forward some of those who worked with Julian to assemble the events outside led to a continued Indian presence in the proceedings.
Walt Lara was the first to speak, joking that he wasn't used to talking about good things happening for Indian people, "like getting their land back. I'm kind of a militant-I like to fight to get the land back." He spoke of the effects of genocide in the past, "up the coast and down the coast. It's sad, and people are still trying to shake it off." He praised the efforts of the Wiyot people. "They're back, and they're moving forward."
Next was Philip Vigil [Hupa], who his wife, Gloria, was essential to "grounding" and "inspiring" this event in tribal tradition (as Julian said). "This is a great day," he told the crowd. "It will go down in history for the Wiyot people and all the Indian people." He said that the Hupa "have sort of been the stewards of ceremonies for all the Indians of this area for years," assisting all the tribes in reviving their ceremonies, and they were ready to do the same for the Wiyot. "This is one of the things we look forward to---to re-establish the ceremonies here as they once were."
Julian Lang, who was introducing the speakers, then commented that he recently heard of a Yurok elder who remembered the Wiyot jump dance as being very much like the Yurok's, with a small difference that she demonstrated. "So I wanted to share that with the Wiyot people," Julian said, "to let you know that there are people who know how those dances went. There are people who can help in that way."
Next was Melody George, Hupa prayer-maker, who sang a beautiful song and offered a prayer in Hupa and then in English. "May the Wiyot begin to remember that which they need to remember, and do that which they need to do. May the acorn eaters in this room be able to help them learn again to do that which they need to do, and to teach their young that which they need to teach them. They are home, and medicine returns to the island."
Alme Allen spoke on behalf of the Karuk, congratulating the Wiyot on a special and historic day, and "a very proud day for Indian people." Then state assembly representative Patty Berg spoke, a group of Tolowa children from Crescent City danced in honor of the day, and then the official moment came as Cheryl and Mayor La Vallee signed the documents, with members of Eureka City Council and the Wiyot Tribal Council assembled around them. The crowd stood and cheered in a hail of flashbulbs. There were a lot of cameras of all kinds.
Then gifts were exchanged: the Mayor presented Cheryl with a clay pot of earth from Indian Island, while Cheryl gave him and each member of City Council several small gifts, including canned salmon (the salmon supplied by the Yurok and canned by Leona Wilkinson), and a medicine pouch containing periwinkle, which the Wiyot used as money ("'penny-winkle' we called it when we were kids," Cheryl recalled), an acorn ("so you never go hungry"), sacred tobacco and "Wiyot medicine to keep you strong."
Cheryl dedicated the day to her grandparents and to her parents, Bill and Loreta Seidner. She then led the entire audience in singing her “coming home” song.
Everyone in the audience received a keychain commemorating the event as they left. Many stayed to talk and eat cold cuts and cake. It was a happy day, and there were many tears in the audience.
"I was so surprised to see so many people," Cheryl said later. "I did not realize what it meant to a lot of people. I knew what it meant to me." She remarked on the emotion she saw there, for example from her co-workers at Humboldt State University, where she is an administrator for the Economic Opportunity Program.
"I still haven't absorbed what a big thing it was. I took it as a matter of fact. The island was always ours. We just needed a piece a paper to say it." But she acknowledged that she also got emotional towards the end, when she mentioned her parents. "That's when I almost lost it. Because most of what I do, I always think of my parents. How would they do this? They were such good people, and I miss them greatly. Even though they've been gone almost all of my adult life, I still depend on their opinion."
But as important and truly historic as this event was, "it isn't the end," Cheryl said. "It's only the beginning." Her goal now is to "get the island to a point where we can put a dance on it." The first will probably be demonstration dance, a celebration, she thought. The winter dances require a dance house, and though one is planned, it's a little farther in the future. "We have to raise money for that."
For now, there is the continuing work of cleaning up the land damaged by various uses over the years, including a boat-building facility. "We've removed 33 tons of scrap metal from the island already," she said, "and we still have to clean up some of the hot spots. But it's not as bad as we thought it might be."
Just as importantly, the Wiyot have to prepare themselves to dance again. Dance families from the Hupa, Yurok and Karuk have come forward to help, Cheryl said. But "none of our former dance families have the dresses" or other regalia. "We pray there will be young men and women who will come forward and say, 'teach me, let me learn.' This is the beginning of the rediscovery of who we are. "
As executive director of the Seventh Generation Fund headquartered in Arcata, Chris Peters hoped that returning even this much of Indian Island to the Wiyot will influence the future of Humboldt Bay. "Indian Island is geographically and historically significant," he said," a place that has been considered sacred and used for spiritual purposes for thousands of years before non-Native people came to this area, and before any churches or synagogues or other buildings used for worship by any denomination were constructed. With the transfer back to Native ownership, we're hoping that this place will be given its due respect, and the development around it on Humboldt Bay will be done in such a way that shows respect for this significant place of prayer."
"Likewise, throughout California, similar land transfers need to happen," he added, "and sacred lands need to be managed as sacred places: sacred for everything and for all people."
As for his participation and the ride across Humboldt Bay in the redwood dugout, Chris said, " It was a fantastic event and I was really honored to be part of it."