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IN 1860 SIX MURDERERS NEARLY WIPED
OUT THE WIYOT INDIAN TRIBE
IN 2004 ITS MEMBERS HAVE FOUND WAYS TO HEAL

Quoted from a February 28, 2004, San Francisco Chronicle Story by William S. Kowinski:

Just before dusk, several hundred people are expected to gather, as they have on the last Saturday of February for 13 years, at the edge of Humboldt Bay in Eureka, across from a small, tear- shaped island half a mile away....

...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 the small tribe spiraling toward extinction 144 years ago.

For a long time, it seemed they were extinct.

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 450 tribal members now live.

"We are still here," said Cheryl Seidner, the Wiyot tribal chairwoman 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."

Grim recapitulation

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 European 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 shipbuilding. 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 made up of 20 villages spread over 40 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 weeklong 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 kidnaping 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, an estimated 15 local tribes were reduced to five.

But Indian Island became the most infamous massacre in Northern California probably because of Bret Harte, who before achieving literary fame reported for a newspaper in Arcata. His account of the massacre and his 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....

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

...Community awareness of the Wiyot story increased dramatically in the late 1990s when Seidner began to raise money for the purchase of the 1.5 acres of Indian Island where the world renewal 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.....

...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 repentance, Ford handed Seidner the first of annual checks on behalf of the Humboldt Evangelical Alliance...

....All of this is also preparation for the future, when the vigil will be over and there is a 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."...

An annual Indian Island Candlelight Vigil is held every Febuary. For more information on the vigil and the Wiyot visit: "www.wiyot.com"

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