It’s official: Eureka formally transfers Indian Island land back to Wiyot Tribe

'Today is a good day to be alive,' says tribal chairman

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With a ceremony that packed the Adorni Center and brought tears to the eyes of many in attendance, the city of Eureka on Monday formally signed the transfer of lands on Indian Island back to the Wiyot Tribe.

The city had agreed to make the transfer in late 2018, but a lengthy process of legwork delayed the formal change-of-hands. Now the land belongs to the tribe once again.

For tribal leaders, the moment is many decades in the making. The tribe lost the lands, which include the sacred Tuluwat Village, in 1860, when a dairy farmer purchased the site without the tribe’s consent.

Just days later, a group of Eureka residents massacred scores of Wiyot people, many of them women and children.

“Today is a good day to be alive,” tribal chairman Ted Hernandez said. He choked up as he thanked his close friends and family members for pushing him not to give up when the prospect of seeing the tribe’s land returned grew distant at times.

“We never gave up on our land or where we came from,” said Cutcha Risling Baldy, an assistant professor of Native American studies at Humboldt State University.

“And that’s the story I want people to know,” Baldy continued. “I know that the story of Tuluwat, which people often refer to as Indian Island, is one of a massacre for most people. But for me, it has always been a place of world renewal.”

The tribe had been in the process of holding a World Renewal ceremony when the massacre took place. Tribal members never got a chance to finish the ceremony, until 2014, when elders revived the celebratory “healing of the Earth.”

Cheryl Seidner, a tribal elder and former Wiyot chairwoman, recited a song of “returning home” that she invited to attendees to participate in singing. She brought a ceremonial quilt to recognize the “people who cannot be here today.”

“My dad’s in the middle of the quilt,” Seidner said. “This was given to us by a group of individuals who saw fit to raise funds to purchase 1.5 acres of Indian Island.”

The land transfer is the second of its kind. In 2004, the city returned a separate parcel of 40 acres of Indian Island to the Wiyot Tribe.

Frank Jäger, the city’s former mayor who sat on the city council when it voted to return the land, suggested the city lower the flags at Eureka City Hall to commemorate the occasion.

In 2014, Jäger signed a formal apology to the Wiyot Tribe for the massacre. An earlier draft of the letter was read aloud Monday that included language not in the version approved by the council.

“Nothing we say or do can make up for what occurred on that night of infamy. It will forever be a scar on our history,” Jäger had written in his apology. “We can, however, with our present and future actions of support for the Wiyot, work to remove the prejudice and bigotry that still exists in our society today.”

The hundreds at the Adorni Center applauded as a group of brush dancers performed a tribal dance — singing and stomping their feet in a steady rhythm.

The city council members spoke, each sharing their honor to be part of the moment. Councilmember Leslie Castellano spoke through tears as she recognized tribal members of the past.

“I honor the people who longed for their land and never were able to set foot on it,” Castellano said. “There are people who spent a lifetime longing for their land.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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