Healing a Nation by Returning Stolen Lands

Tuluwat Island and marshlands (photo by YES Magazine)

In 2015, the City of Eureka in California unanimously passed a resolution to return the ancestral home of Tuluwat Island to the Wiyot Tribe.

It was the first time in the United States that a city government had ever given land back to its ancestral caretakers, and it was a profound testament to the power of the organizing, strength, and vision of Wiyot people.

Pennelys Droz, Yes Magazine

The ancestral home of the Wiyot Tribe is “a strikingly beautiful land of marshes, rivers, redwood and spruce trees, inland mountains and stretches of Pacific coastal beach,” writes Pennelys Droz of Yes Magazine. Tuluwat Island is a 280-acre piece of land located within Humboldt Bay where the Wiyot had for centuries held their annual World Renewal Ceremony.

Until 1860…

Marshlands of Tuluwat Island

On the night of February 26, 1860, a gang of white men descended on the women and children and elderly and brutally massacred them with hatchets, clubs and knives. The murderers had come in the early morning after the last ceremony and when most of the Indian men had left for supplies. The Tuluwat massacre was part of a coordinated attack that targeted other nearby Wiyot sites. In the next two days, the volunteer militia killed over a hundred more people when they attacked three other Indian settlements: South Spit (Eureka); South Fork Eel River (Rohnerville); and Eagle Prairie (Rio Dell).

Drawing of Tuluwat Indian massacre (from American Cowboy Chronicles)

The Wiyot 1860 massacre had followed two years of open aggression by whites against the Wiyot on Tuluwat (Indian Island). The story is the same with white colonialism: the sudden influx of white settlers and their exploitive ways depleted wild game and destroyed game habitat through ranching practices; the indigenous people–faced with starvation from destruction of their traditional food source–began to steal cattle and mules up and down California. Fueled by hatred and prejudice against the indigenous peoples and a need for more land, the white settlers formed volunteer militia groups.

Prominent local residents formed the Humboldt Volunteers and swore to not reveal their membership. Widespread community approval of the barbaric massacre was stoked by press editors who advocated “two–and only two–alternatives for ridding out country of Indians: either remove them to some reservation or kill them.” The day before the massacre, the editor of the Weekly Humboldt Times wrote: “The Indians are still killing stock of the settlers in the back country and will continue to do so until they are driven from that section, or exterminated.”

Bret Harte, assistant editor at an Arcata newspaper, condemned the massacre as brutal, cruel, and unchristian. Harte soon received death threats and was forced to flee for his life. It became apparent that, with a few exceptions, the white settler community had generally approved this grisly massacre. A paltry investigation failed to identify a single perpetrator and no one was indicted for the murders. While motive for the massacre was not clearly established, greed for their lands and racial hatred obviously underlay these brutal murders. One editorial in the San Francisto Bulletin shortly after the massacre suggested that the motive was revenge for cattle rustling. Yet the ranches mostly affected were occupied by the Nongatl Tribe, not by the Wiyot.

Wiyot survivors were brought to Fort Humboldt for their ‘protection.’ Others were later transported to the Klamath River Reservation and Round Valley. Most eventually settled in Table Bluff Reservation. Many survivors died from acions associaed with ‘protective custody’ and ‘death marches as they were herded from place to place.

The island that had once been a sacred place where world renewal was annually celebrated became a killing field and then a garbage dumb, absorbed by the white man’s industry as part of the City of Eureka.

Droz tells the story of how the Wiyot rose up from near-annihilation to assert their place and reclaim their homeland. It began a century after the massacre when Albert James, the son of a massacre survivor, approached the City of Eureka with a proposal to return the island to its original caretakers. Though his request was ignore, the dream sparked others to action.

Wiyot celebrate return of Tuluwat to their care

It took several more decades of organized effort and relationship-building to purchase the first piece of the island. The Wiyot sold art and fry bread and took donations to purchase a small 1.5 acre parcel of land on the eastern tip of the island. They found it contaminated with toxins–paints, solvents, metals, and petroleum–left over from decades of industrial use by shipyard operations. The tribe launched an ecosystem-based clean up that eventually received the EPA Excellence in Site Reuse Award and allowed them to finally enact their World Renewal Ceremony for the first time in 160 years.

A map of the proposed parcel to be transferred to the Wiyot tribe. (Eureka City Staff Report — contributed)

After many patient negotiations between the Wiyot and Eureka city officials over the next few years, the city finally returned Tuluwat Island to the Wiyot Tribe in 2019. During a signing, celebrated with prayer and traditional dance, city officials turned over the deed of over 81 hectares to the Wiyot. Councilwoman Kim Bergel offered, “For our city, it’s the right thing to do, and that’s why we’re doing it. Certainly, it’s been far too long.” This historic event has set the precedence in the United States for a journey of healing through the return of stolen lands to its original caretakers.

Cheryl Seidner of the Wiyot Tribe

“The Wiyot Tribe’s success with Tuluwat Island is a powerful example of the international Indigenous LandBack movement,” writes Droz. In the United States, actions moving forward include the introduction of the RESPECT Act in Congress, which would require federal agencies to follow the principles of free, prior, and informed consent by consulting with tribes before pursuing any activity or regulatory action that may have tribal impacts.

Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez joins the celebration with the ceremonial Brush Dance

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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