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Wiyot Tribe Heals Ancestral Home

This weekend, the Wiyot tribe of Humboldt Bay, near Eureka, will hold its World Renewal Ceremony. This will be the first time the tribe has performed the ceremony in 154 years. The last time was in 1860, when white settlers ambushed the tribe and massacred more than a hundred people.

Both natives and non-natives have struggled to heal that painful past, and the Wiyot say the ceremony is important to the tribe’s future.

Taking the 2-mile-long Samoa Bridge out of Eureka, across the bay, and out to the dunes of the Pacific coastline is like a journey back in time. You begin by leaving town at a generic gas station and boxy motel - and end near an old logging cookhouse-turned-restaurant that boasts ‘you will never leave hungry.’

Halfway across the bridge - as if caught between the past and the present - is Indian Island. This is where, in February 1860, over 100 Wiyot women, children and elders were massacred. The tribe considers this 270-acre island the center of their Universe.

And on a sunny March day I meet Steve who happens to be paddling near the island in his homemade kayak. He says he understands the tribes’ need to reconnect with the island.

Steve: “I don’t really have the center of my universe but I”m a mongrel from a lot of different places. So I don’t have that. And I think it’s a really enriching thing to have someplace that you call your spiritual center.”

Through the years since the massacre the island has been drained and diked, and been home to lumber mills and boat-repair yards which left toxic residues that cost millions to clean up.

In the 1950s, Oregon and California natives were stripped of tribal status. The Wiyot weren’t able to buy back the massacre site they call ‘Tuluwat’ until 2000. Another 40 acres was purchased four years later.

What has not been part of this sullied history has been an apology - that is, until last week - when the Eureka Mayor and city council drafted one.

Eureka Councilwoman Linda Atkins says, “When I first read the letter I was very excited because nothing like this had ever happened in Eureka … There’s always been this kind of pall of guilt or shame or some sort of feeling about the massacre at the island. And yet the people of Eureka never said we’re sorry.”

Then, Atkins says, lawyers got involved and the words “formal apology for the actions of our people” were taken out, and the words “we offer our support to the Wiyot tribe” were put in.

Linda Atkins: “When I saw what had happened to the letter when it had gone through our legal process and had gotten homogenized, it was like: ‘Oh my goodness this is something totally different’.”

Soon thereafter Mayor Frank Jager - who declined to be interviewed by JPR - was quoted in the Eureka Times-Standard as saying “it was a potential liability issue ... if I had to do it over again I would not have released anything until we had a final draft ... we lost sight of what we were really intending to do .. it’s my fault.”

Cheryl Seidner is a Wiyot Elder and councilwoman who first learned about the massacre from her mother when she was just a toddler.

Cheryl Seidner: “Mom never said someone had to apologize for it.

It happened. The people are gone. They’re deceased. They’re buried.”

Seidner points out that not everyone in the tribe agrees with her on this.

Cheryl Seidner: “And so you go on. And I have been looking at this since the seventies. And probably since 1860; in our DNA there’s been something that is not yet done, or quite right since 1860.”

Only smatterings of the Wiyot language remain. There are no living fluent speakers. The pre-massacre population of about 3,000 has dwindled to less than 700. As they’ve prepared for this weekend’s World Renewal Ceremony, they’ve relied heavily on the neighboring Karuk, Hoopa, and Yurok tribes to offer them ideas for forgotten dances, songs, clothing, and ceremonial jewelry - or regalia.

Michelle Hernandez is Youth Coordinator for the tribe and in charge of teaching the lost art of crafting regalia.  Hernandez says, “I’ve known there is a gap of culture, that we haven’t really practiced, but have worked at getting it back ... And we have younger generations who aren’t going to have that gap ... know what I felt about not having our culture.  And that was always kinda my goal. So I have an 8-year-old sister and she will never know not dancing.”

Cheryl Seidner: “And what we as a Wiyot people do is that we set the world right. We heal the earth. And we have done our best to heal Indian Island … We’re going to prepare our hearts. We’re going to prepare ourselves to be ready to hear what the creator has to offer us. We breathe in the salt air and we let it go slowly. And with each breath we take we breathe in our ancestors … But mainly what it is is ‘we’re coming home’.”

And 154 years later it seems the Wiyot are finally home.