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Sacred Homelands Returned to Wiyot Tribe

The Eureka, California, City Council has returned 40 acres of Indian Island to the Wiyot Tribe, who had lost the land in an 1860 massacre. The tribe, city council, and local community celebrated the unanimous and unprecedented decision at a signing ceremony on June 25.

During the ceremony, Tribal Chairwoman Cheryl A. Seidner gave smoked salmon, shell necklaces, and medicine bags to the city council members, and Mayor Peter La Vallee gave Seidner a symbolic clay pot of soil from the island.

"This is the first time that I know of that a municipality has done something like this of their own free will, no money involved, just because it’s the right thing to do," said Wiyot Tribal Administrator Maura Eastman in a phone interview. "The community was incredibly receptive to the idea. It really wouldn’t have happened without all the people involved. It could happen every place."

Indian Island was home to the village of Tulawat, which was brutally massacred on a cold February morning in 1860, along with two other Wiyot villages on the mainland. The Wiyot were exhausted from many days of dancing in their annual World Renewal Ceremony, in which they ask the Creator to bless the people and the land for the New Year. While the men were away gathering supplies on the mainland, five or six white settlers quietly paddled to the island and attacked the women, elders, and children in their sleep. An estimated 60 to 100 people were killed in Tulawat. The survivors were herded from reservation to reservation until they arrived at their current residence on the 88-acre Table Bluff Reservation, south of Eureka. The Wiyot did not regain any land on Indian Island until the tribe purchased 1.5 acres in 2000 in order to restore the village, dance site, and natural environment.

"Our tribe has not danced since the massacre," said Eastman. "The goal is to dance again. That will go a long way for making things right in the world."

The 1.5-acre space was formerly used as a boat yard and the tribe has been cleaning up the scrap metal, chemicals, non-native plants, and other pollution left behind. The newly returned 40 acres is in better shape—it is mostly wetlands and was not as developed. The rest of the 270-acre island is owned both by the City of Eureka and private landowners. The tribe hopes to regain the whole island eventually, but does not want to force anyone out. As Seidner told the North Coast Journal, "We know what that feels like."

La Vallee said he sees the return of the land as "a way to look back and honor these people and give back what was theirs to begin with." The Wiyot have been working to regain the island for years, but the political arena had not been right until recently. A local faith-based group interested in repairing wrongs of the past got involved and helped to create a space for community discussions. New members in the city council and a new mayor also brought more support.

"I thought it was a really good thing to do," La Vallee said. "I felt like we should be celebrating diversity in our community."

Jan Kraepelien, an active local citizen who had experience working in city government, played a key role in helping the process along and fostering the vision in the community. "The Wiyot have been asking for the land back for a long, long time—144 years. It’s up to us to give it to them," he said. "It’s good for everybody. It’s not about guilt. We can turn this whole thing around right now."

"If I were to sum it up in one word," Eastman said, "it’s hope. If you believe that it could never be made right, this might change your mind. People I see here will have grandchildren and great-grandchildren on the island. That’s as the Creator intended."