California Island Returned to Native Tribe

November 1, 2019 Updated: November 1, 2019

An island off the coast of Northern California was recently retuned to descendants from the native tribe that has long considered the land to be the spiritual and physical center of their universe.

The city of Eureka has taken the unprecedented move to deed all 200 acres of land that it owns to members of the Wiyot tribe.

“It’s a really good example of resilience because Wiyot people never gave up the dream,” tribal administrator Michelle Vassel told The Guardian. “It’s a really good story about healing and about coming together of community.”

Transferring ownership of the largest island in Humboldt Bay back to the Wiyot provides an uplifting new chapter to a story marked by a tragic loss that occurred nearly 160 years ago.

On February 26, 1860, European immigrants invaded the island and killed anywhere between 188 and 250 members of the Wiyot Tribe — many of whom were women, children, and elders.

“The whites … fired upon and killed three men, who were asleep in a cabin at some little distance from where the women lay,” the New York Times reported in March of that year. “Then entering lodge after lodge, they dirked the sleeping, and with axes split open and crushed the skulls of the children and women.”

One of the assailants, the so-called “captain of the outlaws,” boasted of murdering 60 infants.

In the years since the Indian Island Massacre, the Wiyot have established the Wiyot Sacred Site Fund with the goal of fundraising enough money to re-purchase the land. For over a century, the Wiyot people have sought to prevent further destruction to their land and return to the island to perform their annual “world renewal ceremony,” a dance that lasts seven to ten days.

In 2001, the Tribe raised enough money from auctions, individuals donors, and selling fry bread, Indian tacos and T-shirts to purchase 1.5 acres of land on the historic village site of Tuluwat.

The Eureka City Council made a resolution in 2006 to return 60 acres from the northeastern tip of Indian Island back to the Wiyot people, who have lived in the Humboldt Bay region for thousands of years.

The most recent transfer of land, which encompassed the historic village of Etpidolh, was free of charge.

“For our city, it’s the right thing to do, and that’s why we’re doing it,” Kim Bergel, a councilwoman, told the Guardian. “Certainly, it’s been far too long.”

About two dozen Wiyot tribal members performed a Brush Dance, a dance of healing, to commemorate the signing of the deed.

When Eureka Mayor Susan Seaman was asked how she felt about the repatriation of the land, she answered, simply, “Amazing.”

“As a resident when the vote was made, I was overjoyed and so proud of the leadership in my community,” Seaman told The Epoch Times. “To be a part of the actual ceremony was a humbling honor.

“The Wiyot massacre is a painful, shameful part of our history and it felt disingenuous to say, ‘We learned our lesson and we won’t do that again,’ while continuing to hold on to the sacred land where it happened,” she added. “Healing was the theme of the day and it was an appropriate one.”

From a legal perspective, the process of returning Indian Island required years of work behind the scenes that included a California Environmental Quality Act analysis, a Surplus Land Act process, consultation with the State Lands Commission, as well as Title and Property Description work.

“Obviously, each one of these is its own saga,” Autumn E. Luna, assistant city attorney for Eureka, told The Epoch Times. But, she noted, these steps provided a starting point.

In 2014, the former mayor of Eureka, Frank Jager, who is a grandfather to two Wiyot girls, issued a formal apology to the tribe on behalf of the city.

“Nothing we say or do can make up for what occurred on that night of infamy,” the statement read. “It will forever be a scar on our history. We can, however, with our present and future actions of support for the Wiyot work to remove the prejudice and bigotry that still exist in our society today.”

Mayor Seaman hopes this return of native land will inspire other communities to embrace unity over division.

“We do hope other communities consider this in their own regions,” Seaman said. “We are forging stronger bonds within our own community. I have to say – it feels pretty great.”