EUREKA, Calif. -- Each year, the Wiyot Tribe holds an annual candlelight
vigil to remember those who lost their lives in the 1860 massacre on Indian
Island, located in Humboldt Bay. The Wiyot people have held the vigil for
15 years, with members of the community and others from surrounding tribes
in attendance. With solemn prayers, poems and song, it is a time of healing
for all people in the area.
The massacre took place on Feb. 26, 1860, when settlers from Eureka, armed
with clubs, hatchets and knives, paddled a boat quietly through the early
morning hours to the island, which is the center of the Wiyot world.
Hundreds of slumbering people were murdered, mostly elders, women and
At that particular time, the Wiyot were in the midst of their World Renewal
Ceremony, which lasts about 10 days. Most of the men had left to collect
supplies for the others in order to finish the ceremony. Two other Wiyot
massacres also occurred that day, one at the South Spit of Humboldt Bay and
another at the mouth of the Eel River.
Wiyot Chairman Cheryl Seidner, of the Table Bluff Reservation, is the
great-great-granddaughter of Jerry James, the lone surviving infant of the
island massacre. One of the purposes behind the annual vigil is to bring to
light the fact "that there was no justice for their deaths," said Seidner.
Even though the murderers were never prosecuted, Seidner vows there is no
animosity as she and her tribe work to restore and protect the island and
Tuluwat Village, a historic Wiyot site on the island. Seidner and the tribe
have worked tirelessly to regain what was taken from them 146 years ago.
After years of battling with the federal government, the Wiyot Tribe was
recognized in 1990. The tribe held fund-raising events and was able to save
$106,000 to purchase 1.5 acres of the island from the city of Eureka in
2000. Then, with great fanfare in June of 2004, the city donated more than
60 acres of the 275-acre island back to the tribe.
Not long after the massacre, the island became the site of a shipyard and
remained so throughout the next 100 years, leaving it environmentally
compromised. Chemicals such as solvents and creosote were used for
repairing boats and need to be cleaned up, along with tons of scrap metal
and dilapidated, abandoned buildings.
To be sure, the Wiyot have had their work cut out for them. "The cleanup is
slow but steady," said Seidner. "We hope by the end of this year we will
have completed this portion of the task. We have received grants from
public and private agencies and individuals that have made it a
According to the tribe's Web site, the island is the largest single piece
of salt marsh in Humboldt Bay for the habitat of such native species as
shellfish, plants, fish and birds. Tribal leaders are exploring ways to
restore the natural waterways, which would allow the bay to interact more
naturally with the tidal marsh area and thereby increase native plant and
fish populations. Man-made dikes and channels have diverted the natural
elements, which has caused erosion of the site.
Restoration plans for the island include protecting the sacred burial
grounds and shell midden of the village site, said to be 1,000 years old
and covering an estimated six acres. For much of the last century, grave
robbers have freely pillaged the site. Ongoing efforts are aimed at
preserving what is left of Wiyot history.
Seidner has her eye on the future, particularly concerning plans to rebuild
the village site. The tribe has had plans drawn for the construction of a
traditional dance house built of redwood planks. A boat dock, outbuildings
and a kitchen are all the backbone of the Wiyot's vision for a traditional
place for the community to gather once again -- a project that Seidner said
could cost upwards of $2 million.
The Wiyot have not held a ceremony of their own at Tuluwat since the
massacre of 1860, breaking the circle of local dance ceremonies
traditionally held with other tribes of the area, including the Hoopa,
Yurok, Karuk and Tolowa. Seidner said she is truly looking forward to her
people finally completing the circle and the unfinished ceremony that was
so horrifically silenced.
Visit www.wiyot.com for more information or to make a donation to the Wiyot
sacred site fund.