More than 150 years after brutal slaughter, a small tribe returns home

After losing much of their ancestry, the Wiyots are learning their traditions in preparation for a renewal ceremony

The Wiyot tribe is set to renew its place on Indian Island, which it called home until 1860.
Ben Margot/AP

EUREKA, Calif. — When a few canoes carrying a group of Wiyot tribal members to Indian Island cross the choppy waters of Humboldt Bay in March, it will not look as if anything particularly special is happening.

The nondescript, flat, marshy 275-acre island sits beneath a bridge upon which traffic whizzes by on busy Route 255. But what will take place will be remarkable: 153 years after Indian Island was the site of a brutal massacre of the Wiyot, it will bear witness to a ceremony of rebirth and testament of survival for a people brought to the brink of extinction.

For three days, beginning March 28, the Wiyot plan to perform a world renewal ceremony on the island. It will be the first time since the massacre that the ceremony — which once stood at the center of the tribe’s cultural life — has been performed, healing a gap of more than a century and a half.

For the tribe’s current members, it’s especially meaningful that the ceremony will take place on the very land where so many of their ancestors were killed.

“We need to complete the ceremony of 1860 for the ones who were lost,” said Ted Hernandez, chairman of the 645-member tribe.

The ceremony will act as a marker on a long and unlikely journey of survival. It is not easy to recover from a massacre, and that year the endured one of the worst ethnic slaughters in U.S. history as they danced and sang at a world renewal ceremony on Indian Island.

A posse of white settlers sneaked through the darkness one night in 1860 and murdered more than 50 Native American women and children, mostly with axes and hatchets.

“Amidst the wailing of mutilated infants,” The San Francisco Bulletin wrote at the time, “the savage blows are given, cutting through bone and brain.” 

Nearby settlers carried out two more massacres that night, killing an additional 90 Indians, most of them Wiyot, and for more than a century it seemed the Wiyot were a destroyed people.

The tribe was at first shunted into a local Army fort known to the Wiyot as “jouwuchguri,” which translates as “lying down with your knees drawn up.” The Wiyot were forbidden to use their own language. The last fluent speakers eventually died off, and in 1958 the U.S. government, intent on mainstreaming Native Americans, stripped the Wiyot of their tribal status. Despair set in, along with alcoholism and drug abuse.

But slowly, the Wiyot began to recover. The Wiyot Nation, which finally regained tribal status in 1990, began the slow process of returning to Indian Island.

It never looked as though it would be an easy task. 

Environmental injustice

The isle was diked shortly after the massacre, and the world renewal ceremony site, in a Wiyot village called Tuluwat, was turned into a shipyard in 1870. The yard’s owners eventually built a retaining wall out of toxic boat batteries and filled a decrepit paint shed with barrels of chemicals. In the early 1900s, amateur archaeologists descended on Tuluwat with shovels to dig for Wiyot bones. The graveyard there became a series of plundered swales.

Despite all that, around 1970, Wiyot tribal chair Albert James began talking about taking the 1.5-acre Tuluwat site back.

“It’s the center of our world,” said his niece Cheryl Seidner, a Wiyot elder. “Our ancestors have always lived there, and Albert was envisioning a cultural center and a museum.”

The dream was of a piece with other, contemporaneous native campaigns. From 1969 to 1971, American Indians occupied Alcatraz Island, off San Francisco, aiming to take it back from the federal government. Likewise, in 1973, armed Lakota activists occupied the town of Wounded Knee, S.D., for 71 days, intent on wresting control from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Neither effort ended with a land transfer, and the Wiyot’s hopes for Indian Island also sank under the weight of hard realities.

“The Tuluwat site was owned by one family, and we couldn’t even get to it without permission,” Seidner said.

In 1990, though, the Tuluwat site came up for sale. Seidner, then an administrative assistant at Humboldt State University, approached the Wiyot tribal council, proposing that it buy the property.

“They told me, ‘You don't have a right to propose that,’” she recalled. “And I was a good kid. I stepped back.”

The world has changed, and the Wiyot have changed with it … but we still need our traditions. We need something to hold on to.

Cheryl Seidner

Wiyot elder

But then in the late 1990s, Seidner became the Wiyot’s tribal chair, and the Tuluwat site went up for sale again. The asking price was $106,000. In 1999, at a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians, in Palm Springs, Calif., a friend of hers — a Pauma Indian, Juana Majel-Dixon — stood on a table beseeching the 1,400 attendees to help Seidner with a down payment before passing around a paper bag.

“When I got back to my hotel room and counted the money,” Seidner said, “we had raised $40,000. I was dumbfounded.”

The Wiyot bought the Tuluwat site in 2000. Six years later, Seidner convinced the city of Eureka to return an additional 60-acre swath of Indian Island to the Wiyot.

Still, a nightmare lingered: The Tuluwat site remained a toxic waste dump.

“It was a classic case of environmental injustice,” said Stephen Kullman, who works as the Wiyot’s director of natural resources. “The land was stolen from the Wiyot and then polluted. Then after they purchased it back, they were responsible for the cleanup. Luckily, it’s a compelling story for a grant proposal.”

‘We’ve lost that memory’

Over the past 13 years, the Wiyot have raised $2.8 million in cleanup aid from myriad agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service Historic Preservation Fund. The wall of leaking boat batteries has come down. Archaeologists trained in handling hazardous waste removed the topmost three feet of soil in one toxic patch of Tuluwat, searching each spadeful for artifacts. A Eureka oyster company donated crushed shells, and the Wiyot sprinkled them around Tuluwat so the soil there is speckled white and resembles the shell midden on which their ancestors lived.

And the island will once again host the world renewal ceremony. There will be about four hours of prayer-like jump dances each of the three days — some of them performed by the Wiyot, others by the Yurok and the Hupa, two neighboring California tribes. After fasting for up to seven days, the Wiyot dancers, both men and women, lined up in rows, dressed in traditional beads and shell necklaces, will bear handmade willow baskets as they sway and leap skyward.

Near the dancers, a fragile and ancient Wiyot dress will hang on display. About a century old, apron-like and adorned with local seeds and glass and shell beads, the Grandmother Dress is one of the only surviving Wiyot ceremonial dresses. It is currently showcased at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, and several Wiyot have made pilgrimages there to view the dress.

The dancers will endeavor, as Hernandez put it, “to heal the world of all the wars we’re having now, all the atrocities — to make everything fall into place.”

The dances won’t be based strictly on Wiyot tradition.

“No one knows what the Wiyot dances were like,” Hernandez said. “We’ve lost that memory. So we are learning from a Yurok dancer. We’re figuring out how to do it.” 

None of this will ruin the ceremony for Seidner, however.

“The world has changed,” Seidner said, “and the Wiyot have changed with it. We don’t live in redwood slab houses anymore, but we still need our traditions. We need something to hold on to. And when we gather on Indian Island, we’ll be saying, ‘We’re here, and we’re trying to put the pieces of our culture together.’”

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