Thursday, January 20, 2005


This site is a companion to another web log, This North Coast Place, concerning the North Coast of California. It consists of longer texts, photos and links to supplement discussions on This North Coast Place.

Anyone can leave comments and join the dialogue. Simply click on "comments" at the bottom of each post, and select to post a comment. You can register but it's not required. Click on the "Anonymous" line and a comment screen should come up. Enter your comment and add at the bottom of it any identifying information you wish, like your name and town.

The first group of posts relate to Native North Coast cultures, particularly the recent and still active efforts of the Wiyot to have their ancestral sacred land of Indian Island returned to them. Two stories and a set of photographs relate the historical background, the fundraising efforts that enabled the Wiyot to buy a small portion of their ceremonial site, and then in 2004, the return of 40 acres to the Wiyot by the City of Eureka. To learn how to contribute to the ongoing Wiyot effort, go to the Wiyot tribal site here.

This cluster of posts ends with some personal reflections on the journey of a non-Native to learning more about Native cultures and their vital importance. I hope you enjoy the site, and join in the discussion.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Native North Coast Posted by Hello

A North Coast Native Primer

Before the European and Euro-American invasion (known politely as "contact") the Native peoples of California were the most numerous in what would be called the United States, and in all of California, the largest Native populations were in the north.

Today California has more Native people than any other state, but many are no longer living where their cultures developed. In this North Coast region, several of the many more indigenous cultures that thrived here still survive. They each have a land base, a tribal government, and in recent decades have revived at least some of their ceremonies and traditions.

The Karuk, possibly the oldest culture in the area, lived in villages along sixty miles of the Klamath River, in territory now called the Siskiyou and Salmon Mountains, and on land now part of the Six Rivers and Klamath National Forests. The Karuk govern trust land that is separated into settlements on a few traditional village sites. The Karuk are the Upriver people.

Here are a few links:
Karuk Tribe
Institute of Native Knowledge
Magic River
language scholar

The Yurok, the Downriver people, lived just below and to the southwest of the Karuk. Yurok territory once included some forty miles of the Klamath and some sixty miles of seacoast. Today the Yurok have the largest single tract of reservation land in California.

Yurok tribe




Yurok Nation

The Hupa lived in an inland valley along the Trinity River south of the Karuk. Today the Hupa inhabit a self-contained reservation area in their valley.
Hoopa Valley

The ancient hunting grounds of the Tolowa were to the northwest, above the watersheds of Bluff Creek. The Tolowa lived in as many as 18 villages along the Pacific coast and the Smith River.

Tolowa tribe
history and links

Wiyot lands once spanned a radius of forty square miles, centered at Humboldt Bay. They had many villages from the present McKinleyville (and perhaps farther north), south to Scotia and inland to Blue Lake.

Wiyot tribe at Table Bluff
Blue Lake and basketry

Several other tribes and bands lived on the North Coast but were essentially exterminated as cultures since contact. Partly as a result of the historically notorious slaughter of the majority of surviving Wiyot on one night in 1860, the Wiyot were in most imminent danger of dying out as a culture and a people. But today the Wiyot tribe is revitalized. (For much more on the Wiyot in history and today, please see the posts that follow.)

These tribes were always small, and developed separately according to exactly where in the landscape they were. Their languages not only differed one from another, but are classified in different linguistic groups. The Yurok and Wiyot speak an Algonquinian language, the Karuk speak a Hokan, and the Hupa an Athabascan language. "Here, within a circle whose radius is approximately six miles," writes Native scholar Jack Norton, "three of the six major linguistic groups recognized in North America came into contact."

And they did come into contact. They were remote, but not isolated. They traded with each other, and with other Native peoples. They shared ceremonies and stories. They are also related to other indigenous cultures in California, southern Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, and according to current standards of linguistic group classification, their languages link them to indigenous peoples of the northeastern United States, the Great Plains, Canada and the Yucatan.

Other links:
The Seventh Generation Fund
Original Voices

Monday, January 10, 2005

on the water from Tuluwat Posted by Hello

Coming Home: The Resolution

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[2003]."

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.

approaching Eureka Posted by Hello

Coming Home: Starting Out

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).

landed at Eureka Posted by Hello

Coming Home: Welcome

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.

the crowd gathers Posted by Hello

Coming Home: Everyone in this room

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 (Yurok), Peter La Valee Posted by Hello

Coming Home: A great day

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."

Philip Vigil (Hupa) Posted by Hello

Coming Home: Medicine returns

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 Seidner Posted by Hello

Coming Home: Coming Home Song

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."

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Return to Tuluwat

This site is a companion to: This North Coast Place.

The following article appeared on the front of the San Francisco Chronicle Datebook section on Saturday February 28, 2004, the day of the annual vigil marking the massacre of the Wiyot in 1860. I tried for years to get some publication interested in this story. It finally happened in early 2004. Though I didn't know it at the time, negotiations were already underway for the return of some 40 acres to the Wiyot, owned by the City of Eureka. I was later told that the appearance of this story was one factor that helped move these talks to fruition. This article gives more of the history than the above account of the signing celebration, both of the 1860 massacre and the more recent responses.

The Wiyot were not the only Native peoples subjected to violence by non-Natives in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some tribes suffered but survived with more population and land base; some tribes did not survive at all as ongoing cultures. Similarly, the Native peoples were not the only victims of violence and discrimination as a people, or an ethnic group. Humboldt County's treatment of the Chinese is nearly as notorious, and even some European groups, such as Italians, were at some time in some way not treated as full citizens. So we may want to think about these relationships, and the impact of this history on community today.

I've kept the structure of the Chronicle article's edited version, with a few clarifications and additions. The 2004 vigil, which I think was the fourth I'd attended, seemed larger than the year before. I'd guess there were 400 people there, including Paul Gallegos, Humboldt County's District Attorney. It was a dry but not entirely clear night. The event is held whether it’s raining (as it often does) or not, though in 2000 it was so stormy the event had to be moved indoors. That 2000 event is notable for several reasons: it was filmed for the Living Biographies project so a professionally shot tape exists as an archive; Cheryl Seidner announced that the first 1.5 acres of Indian Island had been purchased by the Table Bluff Wiyot Tribe, the culmination of a grassroots fundraising effort that captured the imagination of the community and beyond. And during the course of the vigil, Cheryl sang her "Coming Home Song" for the first time in public. That song has become a cherished part of these and related events ever since. More people heard that song on PBS than likely ever heard a Wiyot song, and probably more North Coast people, Native and Non-Native, have sung it together than any other Native song.

Like 2003, several dark necklaces of honking geese flew over during the course of the evening in 2004. Brian Tripp, a Karuk artist and writer, recited his powerful poem about the massacre, which I heard Julian Lang recite the year before last. The vigil ended with Cheryl Seidner singing her "coming home" song, with a "backup group" of Wiyot children joining in, and then everyone. It was dark by then, and I looked up to see a ring around the moon.

By William S. Kowinski
Special to the Chronicle

Just before dusk on the last Saturday in February, several hundred people gather each year at the edge of Humboldt Bay in Eureka, across from a small, tear-shaped island half a mile away.

Standing under a deepening blue sky flared with reds at the horizon (as they did last year) or under umbrellas in a North Coast late winter rain (as they did the year before), they will hold candles and share songs and prayers.

The forested land they can see across the bay, still called Indian Island, was the scene of one of the most notorious massacres in California history. At least 60 and perhaps more than 200 women, children and elders of the Wiyot tribe were slaughtered with axes and knives by six white men, known to be landowners and businessmen. This was one of three simultaneous attacks at different locations that sent this small tribe spiraling towards extinction, some 144 years ago.

For a long time, it seemed they were extinct. . As late as 1996, correspondent Fergus Bordewich wrote, "Little is known about the Wiyots." But the Wiyot tribe, denied federal recognition in 1953, regained it in 1990, and moved to a new reservation at Table Bluff, south of Eureka's city center, where some 450 tribal members now live.

"We are still here," said Cheryl Seidner, the elected Wiyot tribal chair since 1996, and a direct descendant of an infant survivor of the Indian Island massacre. "We are still a people. We still cast a shadow, we are not gone."

History Is

By a quirk of the California coastline, Eureka is the westernmost city in the 48 contiguous United States. Through the fate of history, it was one of the last places in America where Indians and Euro-Americans confronted each other. In a sense, it recapitulated and condensed several hundred years of American history in a few decades.

In 1860, California had been a state for only a decade, and the city of Eureka, growing from its docks to push against the redwood forests around it, had been the seat of the newly formed Humboldt County for just four years. The Humboldt Bay communities of Eureka and Arcata began by supplying the gold miners prowling the northeastern mountains, but by 1860 had opened nine timber mills, and were busily engaged in agriculture and ship-building. In 1853 alone, 143 ships left the bay loaded with timber, bound for San Francisco and other ports.

But far northern California had many small tribal groups of Indians living in its forests and mountains, and along its rivers and coast, some for 10,000 years.

The village of Tuluwat on Indian Island was the physical and spiritual center of the Wiyot world, which was comprised of some 20 villages spread over forty square miles, with a population of perhaps 3,000. There is evidence of Wiyot presence on the island for at least 1,000 years. But for many white settlers, Indians were a not-quite-human barrier to progress. Local newspapers supported a policy of extermination.

On the last Saturday in February 1860, the Wiyot completed their week-long world renewal ceremony at Tuluwat, to bring the world back into balance and mark the equivalent of their new year. The small boat arrived late that night, while the Wiyot men were away gathering supplies.

The massacre on Indian Island was not the first in the region, nor would it be the last. It was part of an accelerated pattern of destruction, beginning with random killings and rapes by miners and ranchers, and including kidnapping and legal slavery of mostly women and children under California's 1850 Indian indenture law. Later, Indians were forced into forts and small reservations under concentration camp conditions, and finally, those still living on their lands were subject to organized warfare by local militia while federal troops fought the Civil War. Together with the ravages of disease, this history reduced an estimated 15 local tribes to five.

But Indian Island became the most infamous massacre in northern California probably because of the presence of Bret Harte, who before achieving literary fame, reported for a newspaper in Arcata. His account of the massacre and editorial condemning its cruelty made him a local outcast, but anonymous letters to a San Francisco newspaper rumored to be his work were largely responsible for the national knowledge of this event. Editorial writers in San Francisco and in New York began referring to Eureka as Murderville.

Though the names of those responsible for the Indian Island massacre were apparently widely known, no legal action was ever taken against them. As Eureka became a prosperous commercial center, and Humboldt Bay became the busiest port between Seattle and San Francisco, this part of the past seemed better left forgotten.

But unlike much of California, the Indian populations indigenous to the Humboldt County area remained significant. Besides residents on Yurok, Hupa, Karuk and Wiyot lands and several Rancherias of mixed tribal groups, many enrolled members of indigenous tribes live and work in Humboldt's cities and towns. Though less than 6% of Humboldt's population, Native Americans are its largest minority group. In this large but mostly rural county(some 80% of it forested or devoted to federal and state parks), a bare majority of its population lives in communities surrounding Humboldt Bay, on land that once belonged to the Wiyot.

"The past is not dead," as William Faulkner wrote. "It's not even past."

The Wounds of Murderville

Seidner and her sister, Leona Wilkinson, began the vigils in 1992, together with two non-Indians, Peggy Betsels. former pastor of Eureka's United Church of Christ, and Marylee Rohde, former president of the Humboldt County Historical Society.

I've known about the story of the massacre since I was a little girl," Rohde said, "so I hadn't realized how deeply it was buried in Eureka's psyche. Peggy didn't hear of it until her daughter was in school, from the Native American parent of another student. But in talking with Cheryl and Leona, we realized that the story needs to be told. There needs to be healing, but the wound tends to fester if it's been suppressed."

"It's a healing of two communities," said Seidner. "It's not just us or them. We need to come together as a community of learning, to understand each other. That rip in our society needs to be mending, and hopefully we've been trying to do that for the last 13 years."

Community awareness of the Wiyot story increased dramatically in the late 1990s when Seidner began to raise funds for the purchase of the 1.5 acres of Indian Island where the ceremonies had traditionally taken place. At the vigil in 2000, Seidner announced that as a result of many small contributions from the local community, together with donations from Indian organizations and individuals nationally, the tribe had reacquired this land. The Wiyot would return to Tuluwat.

More funds are needed to clear the site of debris left behind by an abandoned shipyard, to erect the new ceremonial building, and perhaps acquire more of Indian Island. The Wiyot Sacred Sites Fund continues to raise money, partly through events such as the third annual benefit concert earlier this month. One source of continuing support has come from the local churches that recognize a special responsibility.

An anonymous letter about the massacre thought to be from Bret Harte was sent in 1860 to the San Francisco Bulletin asserting: "The pulpit is silent, and the preachers say not a word." "They did nothing, they said nothing," said Clay Ford, current pastor of the Arcata First Baptist Church. "We realized that we needed to take responsibility before God and before the Wiyots, for what Christian people did not do, even if we weren't there." After making a formal proclamation of repentence, Ford handed Seidner the first of annual checks, on behalf of the Humboldt Evangelical Alliance.

Another group, the Humboldt Interfaith Council (affiliated with the United Religious Initiative based in the Bay Area) is dedicating its community fund-raising efforts this year to the Wiyot Sacred Sites fund, including the proceeds from its Interreligious Peace Festival, being held on the Humboldt State University campus today.

"We're very passionate about what the Wiyots are trying to do," said Ross Connors-Keith, director of the group. The theme is the sacred arts---"especially dance and music, said Ross Connors-Keith, the group's director, "in keeping with the Wiyots' world renewal ceremony, which involved dance and singing. We thought this would be a wonderful way of bringing the community together."

At the Interreligious Peace Festival on the last Saturday of February this year, the Council will also present the Wiyot with a quilt made of individually purchased and decorated blocks (with proceeds going to the Wiyot fund), assembled by two county quilting guilds. "We selected a fish motif," Connors-Keith said, "because the massacre destroyed the Wiyot culture, and this is a theme that relates to their traditional way of life."

There have been other signs of reconciliation in recent years, as when Cheryl Seidner, about to speak to the Arcata Planning Commission in a public hearing concerning a proposed new center for the United Indian Health Service, spontaneously decided to welcome everyone to Wiyot country. It is an American Indian tradition for the host tribe to give permission to others coming onto their land. "I don't know if anyone has ever welcomed you before, and I want to be the one to do that" she said, and now recalls, "the roar that went up in the building was monumental---I couldn't believe what I had heard...The whole community that was there, it just exploded."

But in other ways, progress has been slow. "It's been a disappointment to me that I haven't seen more of the white population of Eureka interested in the vigil," Marylee Rohde says. "I think the wound is finally being acknowledged, but...Peggy Betsel's theory, and she did her dissertation about this at the theological seminary in Berkeley, is that this community had so much difficulty pulling together partly because this wound wasn't acknowledged. That burying it continued to poison what tries to happen."

"But we have seen participation in the vigil increase over the years from the Wiyots and other Native Americans," Rohde adds. "When I look back at the Civil Rights movement, I think maybe the healing has to happen with the victims first, before the perpetrators can acknowledge their own wounds."

But Marylee Rohde believes there's still progress to be made. "It's been a disappointment to me that I haven't seen more of the white population of Eureka interested in the vigil," she says. "But we have seen participation in the vigil increase over the years from the Wiyots and other Native Americans. When I look back at the Civil Rights movement, I think maybe the healing has to happen with the victims first, before the perpetrators can acknowledge their own wounds."

Return to the Center of the World

"The Wiyot are a people who are beginning to learn about themselves again," Cheryl Seidner says. "Culture gives us our identity. We are not just a name. We have to learn to live our culture, and try to incorporate it in our daily life."

"Cheryl stepped in at a transition point," observed Julian Lang, a language scholar and cultural activist whose ancestry includes Karuk and Wiyot. "Before Cheryl, the effort was to regain the Wiyot identity at the political level, to gain recognition and stabilize. Cheryl was able to begin charting a path of development at the cultural level, to begin the cultural rejuvenation. She's looking forward, representing the idea that there is a traditional ceremonial life ahead for the Wiyot."

Cheryl Seidner has worked full time at Humboldt State University since 1979. She is currently an administrator for the Economic Opportunity Program(though Governor Schwarzenegger has recommended it be abandoned.) Her older sister, Leona Wilkinson, recently retired from the Upward Bound program at HSU. But some fifteen years ago, Cheryl persuaded Leona to begin traditional basket-weaving again, which she had learned as a girl from their grandmother. The beautifully designed and water-tight woven baskets, caps and other items have both practical and sacred purposes essential to Wiyot life. Now she teaches her niece and grand-niece, beginning with the proper gathering of materials.

Basketry was easy compared to reviving the Wiyot language. There are no fluent Wiyot speakers left- only some tapes made in the 1950s. Marnie Atkins, Wiyot Cultural Director, is hoping to attend the "Breath of Life" conference at UC Berkeley for the second time this June, where she will be paired with a linguist to investigate the archives.

Meanwhile, she will be working with these tapes to create usable lessons that can be disseminated on CDs and over the Internet. Her goal is to get the language "into our ears, and into our children's ears."

Julian Lang has also studied these tapes, and combined what he learned with some singing derived from the Karuk culture for some classes he held for interested Wiyot a few years ago. "There was instant acceptance of that, and an incredible aptitude," he says. "People learned very fast. Lynn [Reisling, his partner in the Institute for Native Knowledge] and I were amazed. Within a month it was like all the cultural knowledge had always been there. It was close to the surface of everybody's soul."

Because February 1860 on Indian Island was the last time the Wiyot performed their world renewal ceremony, Seidner acknowledges that they will look to other local tribes for help in reconstructing it. Several have similar ceremonies, and they have traditionally participated in each other's dances. The rest, she says, "will come from our dreams. It's in our DNA."

With what Wiyot words she learned, she created her "coming home" song, which she sang at the end of a PBS airing of a documentary on American Indian sacred sites produced by the San Francisco based Sacred Land Film Project.

Sharing among tribes has already begun at the vigils. At last year's event, as participants gathered around the bonfire in the cold, clear night, Julian Lang looked up and remarked, "in Wiyot the word for 'stars' means 'God's eyes.'" Then he sang a song from the Karuk's world renewal ceremony, the Jump Dance. Joseph Orozco, a member of the Hupa tribe who is the station manager of KIDE-FM, the first tribally owned and operated public radio station in California, sang a mourning song based on the White Deer Dance.

All of this is also preparation for the future, when the vigil will be over and there will be ceremony at the end of February again.

"Cheryl recognizes that land is at the heart of the ceremony," Lang says. "Ceremony needs a place, and there's no more significant place than Tuluwat on Indian Island."

Seidner talks with enthusiasm about members of other tribes "who say, we can't wait to be back on the Island with you...It's getting to the point that they can feel it coming. It's been a real blessing. We realize we are not standing by ourselves.''

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Coming to the Native North Coast

Five North Coast Native maidens and one badly placed microphone: June 25, 2004 Posted by Hello

A personal journey

In a real sense, when coming to Native lands, we non-Natives are all newcomers. Yet in another sense, even if we are not Native Americans, some of us are native-born Americans, and we, too, belong to this land.

My native grounds are in western Pennsylvania. I was born there, I grew up there, and after some years in various other places, I was living there again before I came to the North Coast. There are a few thousand American Indians in the Pittsburgh area, almost none of them from tribes indigenous to Pennsylvania. There is no reservations or Native land base in the entire state. The last recognized Native land disappeared under the waters of Kinzua Dam, which is the specific subject of Buffy Sainte Marie's famous and glorious protest song, "Now That the Buffalo's Gone."

But a long time ago there were many Native cultures there. The archeological site that documents the oldest human habitation in the U.S., beginning some 16 to 18 thousand years ago, is in western Pennsylvania, at a place called Meadowcroft, which appeared to have been a resting place, possibly after the hunt, for countless generations.

Much of the 18th century history involving Indians and the British, French and then Americans, occurred in Pennsylvania. The first tribe to negotiate a treaty with the new U.S. government was the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) in Pennsylvania; in 1778 in Pittsburgh, they signed an agreement that would have created a fourteenth state, to be populated and governed by the Indian nations. But the Continental Congress failed to ratify the treaty.

Growing up, there were whiffs of all this for a boy living in an in-between place: on the edge of a small town where the young George Washington had changed his horses, but with woods and fields that hadn't yet been turned into suburbs and shopping centers. Although that landscape was still scarred by old mines and had long ago been logged, it had patches of wildness and wildlife.

I remember when I was 10 or so, walking an unusual distance (though in a year or two it would be at the end of my first paper route) with some older boys from the neighborhood, into a patch of woods near Mt. Odin Park ( a popular picnic area), up Toll Gate Hill. We searched for and believed we found Indian arrowheads. One of the older boys pointed to a rusting frame of metal, and claimed it was the remnant of a Conestoga wagon. Though it all appealed to my boyish imagination, neither the arrowheads nor wagon (though in fact it was likely a decayed Ford) was implausible. We were in fact walking a much traveled area. Toll Gate Hill had been a real toll gate along the main road from Pittsburgh east to Fort Ligonier in George Washington's time. Nearby Route 30 traced that wagon and horseback route, which in turn traced a primary Native trail. Many years later, I saw a map of the many other trails that had crisscrossed this area. It wasn't all romantic illusion: there were spirits in those woods.

That particular trail also led to Bushy Run, some six miles west, where an improbable battle in 1764 ended the ongoing siege of Fort Pitt and the last organized threat to non-Native expansion. This was "the west" then, and non-Native hegemony had not been a sure thing.

Senecas and Delawares had surrounded Fort Pitt, and told the English there that they had convinced the Six Nations Confederacy not to attack the fort so the besieged families inside could leave. Instead the English made a gift to the Indians of blankets deliberately infected with smallpox. This was not a story we were told in school.

artist rendition overlooking Fort Pitt area Posted by Hello
The western Pennsylvania landscape is made up of soft rounded hills, some of them steep, and valleys, some of them long, some of them deep. There are lots of trees---Pennsylvania is still 40% wooded. I grew up in a house on a hill facing east, with a view of the entire town, and beyond it the blue skyline of the Appalachian foothills. Directly across our new street (I saw it graduate from dirt tamped down with oil in the summer, to covered with crushed stones called "red dog," before finally being paved) was a patch of woods, where I spent a lot of my time.

I mention this because of a moment in college that made a major impression on me. Objectively, it wasn't much---just something that a visiting lecturer said in passing, as I sat in a crowd of students and faculty, politely more or less listening. This was some 800 miles away, in western Illinois. While talking about something else (I don't remember the topic) he happened to mention that some Native peoples prayed over an animal they had just killed for food, thanking the animal's spirit for the gift of this sustenance.

I remember being so struck by this that I left the room to think about it. Suddenly so many feelings came back. I'd had just enough contact with life and death in nature to have been impressed as a child with the paradox of taking life to sustain life. I'd also had a religious education that had nothing to say about any personal relationship to the natural world, even though I had strong feelings about the landscape, certain trees and rocks, and animals. I'd also grown up with the usual mix of romantic notions about Indians, but at least I had some idea of their closeness to nature.

Now I had heard something that made perfect sense, that recognized the apparent paradox as natural, and what was natural as a profound and religious mystery.

At the end of the 60s I found myself in Berkeley, California with a houseful of hippies, including one old friend from college and a northern California Indian named David. I seem to remember he was Yurok. It's funny to think about that now, but at the time he was just a hippie among the rest of us hippies in our psychedelic mix of Midwestern Protestant, Middle Atlantic Catholic, East Coast Jew, and a young woman from New England named Priscilla.

It was David's little yellow school bus we painted in psychedelic colors, and took on our coastal adventures. Hey, David, are you out there?

So it wasn't until just a few years before I came here, that I began really exploring what I could about Native American cultures, past and present. 1992 was a natural year for it, as the 500th anniversary of Columbus became an explosion of awareness about Native Americans, led by Native writers. So simultaneously I began exploring Native history, contemporary Native life and contemporary Native literature.

The natural place to start for the history and contemporary life was right at home: Pittsburgh, where I was living then, some thirty miles from where I grew up.

Fort Pitt in background Posted by Hello

back to Pittsburgh

Being a writer, I went about it by doing a story. I met the founder of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center, Russell Simms, who is Cherokee and Seminole. I met Alice Hartshorn, who came from Texas; Marwin Begaye, a young full-blooded Navajo activist and artist (whose work is now nationally known) and Miguel Sague, from central America, and started attending his full moon ceremonies and other events where he talked about the spirituality of his people.

Thanks to Miguel, I later participated in my first sweat lodge. Miguel said his people believed in spreading their knowledge, and our participation was part of his pledge to himself that wherever he was, he would conduct the full moon, solstice and equinox ceremonies of his tradition. Just before we left, my partner Margaret and I were asked to serve on the board of the Caney Indian Spiritual Circle. Miguel's salsa band played for a surprise party at a Pittsburgh restaurant I organized for Margaret's birthday, the last gathering of our Pittsburgh friends.

These Native people and others I met for the story I did for a local weekly, as well as the fiction, essays and interviews I was reading by contemporary Native writers, gave me the beginning of a feel for contemporary Native life in North America. I learned to approach both contemporary and historical information with humility and openness, for I was also learning why contemporary Native people are a bit skeptical of non-Native interest. It has often resulted in enthusiasm without understanding, and at worst, exploitation and cultural theft.

Some of the Indians I met in Pittsburgh were native-born western Pennsylvanians, as I was. But none of them were from tribes that were Native to that place. They were not part of the history and cultures I was reading about in the past of my home land. I did see some dances of the Seneca and Delaware demonstrated by the Allegeny River Dancers from a reservation in New York. But that's as close as I came, outside the few books on the subject, notably Indians in Pennsylvania, by Paul A. W. Wallace (which Russell Simms said seemed pretty accurate.)

All the feelings I had for the woods and landscape where I grew up were given new grounding and meaning in Wallace's descriptions of Seneca, Shawnee, Wynadot, Creek and Delaware life, and before them the fabled Monogahela People: they lived in the region for centuries, but by the time the Europeans arrived they were gone: some say they dispersed, some say they essentially died out owing to the diseases the Europeans brought to the coast, to which Indians had no immunity, spread inland by trading and traveling Indians, so this culture was eradicated as a consequence of invaders they never saw. The vast majority of American Indians who perished after contact died of these diseases.

My own residual feelings for the scraps of natural landscape I experienced, and the nature of the place (the contours and colors, the weather, the air itself) found an order and meaning in Wallace's descriptions of, for example, how Delaware children were raised. They were respected and cherished, and their education was a community responsibility. They were taught woodcraft and gardening, a knowledge of plants and animals, and the tribal legends and traditions, and religious beliefs.

"The basic principle of Delaware religion was that spirit was the prime reality," Wallace writes. "All things had souls: not only man, but also animals, the air, water, trees, even rocks and stones." Another scholar observed that the Delaware "trod lightly through his natural environment, merging himself sympathetically into the world of living and non-living things."

Here was the essence of what resonated so strongly in me when I heard that speaker at college: first, the sense of aliveness in everything, that every element of the world is sacred and has soul; second, the deep acceptance of the complexity, even the tragedy, inherent in human relationship to other life, particularly the fact that we live by killing and consuming life. The religion I was used to didn't really confront this, and the thinking of the non-Native world was one-sided (there was no problem because only humans have souls) or they dealt with this paradox that every child feels when we see a dying animal, by avoiding it, by denial.

For the Delaware who lived where I had lived, the place of humans in the universe was dramatized in the chief annual ritual, the Big House Ceremony, held over twelve days and nights in October. A wooden structure of perhaps 50 by 30 feet, the Big House was as symbolic as it was solid: its floor was the earth, with the underworld below. Its four walls were the four directions; its ceiling the sky dome, with the home of the creator above. At the center of the house was a post, symbolizing the World Tree. Along the floor from the east door to the west was the winding White Path, along which the dancers danced, solemnly following the path of life with its twists and turns from birth to death, around the World Tree.

A few years later I researched and wrote another article, about the little known fact that many non-Natives in those 18th century days of contact, were deeply impressed by Native life. There were even people known as white Indians, usually captives who were so absorbed in Native life that they remained or returned, even after being "rescued" (many had to brought back to white society by force, and they promptly escaped back.)Part of the reason was Native spirituality, and the strength of the cultures based on it. One man who lived five years with the Delaware wrote: "As a nation they may be considered fit examples for many of us Christians to follow. "They certainly follow what they are taught to believe right more closely, and I might say more honestly, in general, than we Christians do the divine precepts of our Redeemer....I know I am influenced to good, even at this day, more from what I learned among them, than what I learned among people of my own color."

University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, BC Posted by Hello

lightning in Vancouver

Also around this time, I decided to use a free Peoples Express airline ticket for a trip to Seattle and Vancouver. I'd visited Vancouver for the first time in the late 1980s for speaking engagements resulting from my book (The Malling of America) but I never got to spend much time exploring. I had an old friend there (who had passed through that house in Berkeley hippie days) and we'd gotten reacquainted on one of those speaking gigs, so she would be my Vancouver area guide.

We were racing around the city one day and got to the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology late in the afternoon. We had less than a half hour before closing, but those few minutes changed my life. It was the first time I'd seen the dramatic Northwest Coast Native art, expressed mostly in wood: in painted masks, canoes, boxes and implements, and most dramatically of all, totem poles. This Museum was a wonder of this art. They also had some contemporary examples of masks and paintings, and a large sculpture, the first attempts in many years to revive these traditions and return them to the highest quality of the best work of the past.

I learned the sculpture was by Bill Reid, and later that another Northwest Coast artist, Robert Davidson, was becoming prominent. It took maybe a year, but I managed finally to get an assignment to write about them from Smithsonian Magazine. Bill Reid was pretty ill by then, but there was a major retrospective of Robert Davidson's work at the Museum of Civilization across the river from Canada's capital. I went there, met Davidson and his brother, Reg, also an artist. (Reg invited me to Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte island, for salmon fishing in the fall. I've always regretted not being able to take him up on that.)

Eagles by Robert Davidson Posted by Hello

Posted by Hello
I later spent a week hanging out at Robert Davidson's studio near Vancouver. I spent many hours with him there, and a few at his home. We went to a movie together ("Schindler's List.") It was all a rich experience, and I continued to explore and admire that art, even after my story ran in 1995.

In many ways, to move to the North Coast a year later was a large dislocation in my life, but there were a few elements of logic to it. One was the forests, but that's another story. The other was the presence of indigenous cultures. The opportunity to come here seemed the next step.

That's my journey, sort of. What about yours?