Spirit Olevia and her son Anaiah listen to speakers during the Bloody Island Sunrise Ceremony near Upper Lake, California, on May 15, 2021. Spirit is a singer, often dedicating her work to her ancestors. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
ne-hundred seventy-one years ago, the small island of Bonopoti in Lake County was still a haven for the people who had lived here for centuries: the Pomo. It was where many people gathered to fish, and to collect plants and medicine — at a time when the Gold Rush and colonial policies were already rapidly transforming Indigenous people's way of life.
On May 15, 1850, a U.S Army regiment arrived on the island and killed every Pomo man, woman and child they could find there. From then on, Bonopoti became known as Bloody Island.
It's a space where people from different Indigenous tribes gather to honor those ancestors claimed in the massacre — and to look to the future.
Now in his 70s, year after year Duncan remains an integral figure at this ceremony, and a passionate advocate for the gathering’s ethos of remembrance with forgiveness.
At the 2021 ceremony on May 15, Duncan told the assembled people that "no matter how much anger, no matter how much hatred is out there that's going to face you, you have to do it this way: this love way. This respectful way.”
“We can learn no matter how old we get. We can change no matter how old we get,” he said.
'We Always Have Our Ancestors Within Us'
There’s no way to confirm how many Pomo people were killed that day at the massacre.
Army estimates from the time put the death toll at around 200 people. Contemporary Indigenous leaders estimate closer to 400 people lived on the island – and very few survived.
The 2021 Sunrise Ceremony saw the participants first gather in the dancing arbor where they had danced the night before, saying a blessing for the land and putting down tobacco in a fire before circling out of the dancing ground.
Those gathered then walked down the dirt road across Highway 20, and down the path named Reclamation Road that leads to where the massacre occurred.
“It's a beautiful feeling,” said attendee Lupe Luna.
“Going out there and hearing everybody's story, with the mic and saying a prayer, singing songs, burning some sage, releasing the negative feeling," Luna said. "And having hope and faith that something will happen for the greater good for our people.”
Eileen Boughton attended the ceremony for the first time this year after recently learning that her own grandfather had been present at the massacre — and survived.
"I'm 64 and I never knew that," she said. "If he didn't survive, we wouldn't be here."
Boughton said she tells her younger family members, now that she knows the story. "I am so grateful, and we always have our ancestors within us. They're in our blood. They're everywhere we go."
Boughton’s drive to spread the word about her family’s history, and her community’s past, is in contrast to how she recalls her own childhood questions about her heritage being met with “anger and the frustration” from her elders. Frustration directed not at her, but at the injustice of the treatment the Pomo have received over the years, and stemming from the personal trauma suffered by those same family members, who had felt their Indigenous identities being deliberately erased.
Being at the ceremony, said Boughton, was “just beautiful. It was stunning. It was spectacular."
But on Bloody Island, joy at the beauty of the gathering and the sense of community intermingles with the pain of this historic atrocity — and also the trauma inherent in remembrance.
Pomo Elder Thomas Leon Brown took the microphone at the Sunrise Ceremony to speak of the emotional weight incurred by his repeated retellings of the Bloody Island Massacre in the region’s schools.
“I never realized in all my years as an elder how much that each time you tell that story, how much it hurts — what happened to our people,” said Brown.
“We have what we call now historical trauma, intergenerational trauma among our children, and among a lot of our families,” Brown said. “But we have to keep on praying. Do these healing songs. Bring our people together.”
Another way the Bloody Island Massacre carries its impact into the present day is in the current push to rename the nearby town, which bears the name of the man whose cruelty set the massacre in motion: Kelseyville.
The U.S. Army's supposed justification for the slaughter: the fact that members of the Pomo had previously killed two notoriously brutal white ranchers who had systematically enslaved, abused and starved the local people.
Andrew Kelsey, for whom Kelseyville was named in 1882, was one of those white ranchers – and his cruelty toward the local Indigenous people was legendary. Along with a man named Charles Stone, Kelsey forced Pomo to work as laborers on their ranch. Native people were often starved and beaten, sometimes even strung up from trees as a form of torture.
It all came to a head after Kelsey lashed a young Pomo boy 100 times, then shot him, allegedly for flirting with a Pomo woman Kelsey was holding on his property. Enraged at this culmination of longstanding violence and oppression, Pomo men killed Kelsey and Stone soon after.
Now, the local volunteer group Citizens for Healing wants to see the town's name changed. They say the “unwarranted and disrespectful” naming is an insult to the tribal community and also “shames local pioneer descendants and current residents.” Kelsey’s killing, the group said, was a “justifiable execution” in the light of his brutal violence toward local people.
Citizens for Healing member Kevin Engle attended the 2021 Sunrise Ceremony and said he was initially unfamiliar with the story of the Bloody Island Massacre — but that his research revealed the true extent of the island’s horrific past.
“The more I got into it, the more I found,” he said. “It's amazing how much of a historical record there is, and what a documented trail these guys left behind."
These pushes to honor the area’s Indigenous history are also echoed in the conversations around how the Bloody Island Massacre itself should be memorialized — not just on the landscape, but in the community.
Douglas Duncan — brother to Clayton Duncan, with whom he works to bring the Sunrise Ceremony to life each year — notes that the plaque on the island incorrectly terms those events as a “battle.”
“It wasn't a battle,” he said. “It was a massacre.”
This plaque remains spattered in red paint, to signify the blood spilled at this site.
If the state truly wants to share an accurate history with its people, said Douglas Duncan, this particular memorial plaque should be changed to echo the language that’s on the California Historical Landmark plaque that stands on the highway nearby — the one that accurately recognizes the deaths as a military massacre.
But beyond plaques, for Douglas Duncan, truly honoring this painful history might look more like providing spaces for the community to commune and thrive: healing centers that focus on supporting body and soul, and a museum celebrating Indigenous traditions — “so that younger ones can learn,” he said.
For Lupe Luna, her vision of wider healing is in large part dependent on not just raising awareness of the painful histories that came before, but finding community in that awareness. To have people “have that humble heart and come together as one, as unity ... as strong people and bring healing within ourselves, and within Mother Earth.”
The goal, said Luna, is “that we have hope — that our future generations don't have to go through this type of trauma.”
Of this moment in time, Clayton Duncan said, “I feel in my heart it's time for change. And I think Lake County is going to be the center of letting this out: the feeling, this forgiveness.”
This story includes reporting from KQED's Sasha Khokha and Suzie Racho.