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Tribe members return to island more than 100 years after brutal massacre

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
December 28th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

For the surviving members of the Wiyot tribe, it will be a bittersweet return to their homeland. Wiyot tribal members will brave the choppy waters in Humboldt Bay in order to cross on to Indian Island. For three days, beginning March 28, the Wiyot will perform a world renewal ceremony on the island. It will mark the first time the ceremony has been performed since an Indian massacre of 153 years ago. It's hoped that this will add to the healing of the many injustices that the Wiyot have suffered since. 

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Indian Island is described as flat and marshy. The 275-acre island sits beneath a bridge near busy Route 255. The nondescript area in March will bear witness to a ceremony of rebirth and testament of survival for a people brought to the brink of extinction.

"We need to complete the ceremony of 1860 for the ones who were lost," Ted Hernandez, chairman of the 645-member tribe says.

It's not easy to recover from a massacre. The worst ethnic slaughters in U.S. history occurred in 1860 as the Wiyot danced and sang at a world renewal ceremony on Indian Island. A posse of white settlers stealthily crept up on the tribe that terrible night in 1860 and murdered more than 50 Native American women and children, mostly with axes and hatchets.

"Amidst the wailing of mutilated infants," the San Francisco Bulletin wrote at the time, "the savage blows are given, cutting through bone and brain."

Nearby settlers carried out two more massacres that night, killing an additional 90 Indians. The majority of those killed were Wiyot, and for more than a century it seemed the Wiyot were a destroyed people.

Forced into a local Army fort, the Wiyot were forbidden to use their own language. The last fluent speakers eventually died off, and in 1958 the U.S. government, intent on mainstreaming Native Americans, stripped the Wiyot of their tribal status.

The Wiyot, many of whom succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse, slowly began to recover. The Wiyot Nation, which finally regained tribal status in 1990, began the slow process of returning to Indian Island.

Around 1970, Wiyot tribal chair Albert James began talking about taking the site back.

"It's the center of our world," his niece Cheryl Seidner, a Wiyot elder said. "Our ancestors have always lived there, and Albert was envisioning a cultural center and a museum."

The Tuluwat site came up for sale in 1990. Seidner, then an administrative assistant at Humboldt State University, approached the Wiyot tribal council, proposing that it buy the property.

"They told me, 'You don't have a right to propose that,'" she recalled. "And I was a good kid. I stepped back."

The world has changed, and the Wiyot have changed with it . but we still need our traditions. We need something to hold on to.

Seidner became the Wiyot's tribal chair later that decade, and the Tuluwat site went up for sale again. The asking price was $106,000. At a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians, in Palm Springs, California, a friend stood on a table beseeching the 1,400 attendees to help Seidner with a down payment before passing around a paper bag.

"When I got back to my hotel room and counted the money," Seidner said, "we had raised $40,000. I was dumbfounded."



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