by Bill Kowinski
most of this account of the transfer of 40 acres of Indian Island from the City of Eureka to the Wiyot on June 25, 2004, first appeared in News from Native California Fall 2004. Photos by BK.
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 Tulawat 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 it 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.
In the year 2000, after several years of fundraising, the Wiyot purchased 1.5 acres of Indian Island, the location of Tulawat 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.
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