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How a California Tribe Fought for Years to Get Their Ancestral Land Back in Eureka

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Two people stand together in an outdoor setting looking at the camera.
Cheryl Seidner (right) and her grand-niece Hilanea Wilkinson in Loleta on Sept. 22, 2023. (Alexandra Hootnick for KQED)

In the winter of 1860, on Tuluwat, an island in the middle of northern California’s Humboldt Bay, a baby was wrapped up in his mother’s arms as she lay face-down, trying to protect him. Around them, the island was burning.

Earlier that day, the Wiyots, an indigenous tribe who’ve lived in the Humboldt Bay region for thousands of years, held their sacred World Renewal Ceremony on the island west of Eureka. It sits in the center of Wiyot ancestral lands, and it’s the spiritual center of the universe for the tribe.

“[The island is] where the Creator put us,” said Cheryl Seidner, former tribal chairwoman of the Wiyot Tribe. “That’s where we came from.”

Nearly 150 years later, Tuluwat Island would become the focus of a successful effort to get indigenous land returned — long before today’s land back movement.

A Brutal Massacre Targeting Women and Children

In late February 1860, neighboring tribes joined the Wiyot people on Tuluwat Island for the weeklong World Renewal Ceremony, which featured singing, dancing and praying.

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On Feb. 25, the sixth day of the ceremony, Wiyot dancers woke up before sunrise. They put on deer hides and headbands decorated with porcupine quills and eagle feathers. Their skirts sang as the abalone and clam shells adorning them rattled together.

The baby’s father, a Wiyot leader known as Captain Jim, likely led the ceremony that day, starting with a dance to heal and balance out the world.

“They would jump on the ground and shake the ground so the bad spirits would go away and leave the good spirits,” Seidner said. “[The ceremony] is trying to bring balance to our world, which is out of balance.”

The singing and dancing continued through sunset.

A island sitting in a bay is seen.
Tuluwat Island in the middle of Humboldt Bay on July 11, 2023. The island is the spiritual center of the Wiyot universe. (Izzy Bloom/KQED)

By nightfall, the winter winds grew so strong that the women, children and elderly people at the ceremony hunkered down to spend the night. Meanwhile, Captain Jim and the rest of the Wiyot men climbed into dugouts and paddled through rough currents to the coast to gather food and supplies for the final ceremony the next day.

But once they’d left, another group of men arrived on the island. They were white men — some of the settlers who’d flooded into Humboldt during the gold rush — who called themselves the Humboldt Cavalry.

Using hatchets and clubs, they massacred the sleeping Wiyot women, children and elders.

“To my knowledge, they did not bring any guns because they didn’t want anybody to hear,” Seidner said. “You can hear a shot for miles, but you can’t hear anybody being clubbed to death.”

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A young woman named Jane Sam, who survived the massacre by hiding in a trash pile, later recounted the events of that night.

“These white men took all things such as beads, baskets, fur, hide, bows, and arrows. All the property belonging to the dead that was not taken was destroyed by burning. Women and children were killed when they lay asleep.”

The handful of survivors included the baby found cradled in his mother’s arms. She’d been struck down, and her body lay in a ditch, but the child still lived.

“His name was Jerry James,” Seidner said. “He was my mother’s grandfather.”

Jerry James had no idea that his descendants would one day fight to reclaim the island where he almost lost his life.

‘Murderville’

The Tuluwat massacre was by no means an anomaly in Gold Rush California. One of the first laws passed by the newly-formed state legislature allowed white people to take indigenous children as indentured servants.

And yet, these murders seized the nation’s attention, in large part, historians say, because those massacred were women and children from a peaceful tribe.

The day after the murders, a local journalist named Bret Harte published an account of the aftermath in The Northern Californian newspaper, based in the city of Arcata, known then as Union.

“Neither age or sex had been spared. Little children and old women were mercilessly stabbed and their skulls crushed with axes. When the bodies were landed at Union, a more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women, wrinkled and decrepit, lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long gray hair. Infants scarce a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds.”

The Humboldt Cavalry carried out at least 10 more attacks on Wiyot villages elsewhere in Humboldt over the next week. Three hundred Native Americans were murdered — possibly several hundred more.

The closest city to Tuluwat, east of the island, is Eureka. After the massacres, newspapers in San Francisco and New York dubbed Eureka “Murderville.”

Locally, however, most people seemed to approve of what had happened, according to Humboldt historian and ethnographer Jerry Rohde.

“The massacre perpetrators managed to get away scot-free,” Rohde said. “A couple of the people who helped organize the massacres ran for government office in the next election, and they were elected by wide majorities.”

Stolen Land, Loss of Federal Recognition

After the massacres in 1860, U.S. troops corralled the surviving Wiyot people and moved them to a nearby military fort. White settlers quickly took over Wiyot land, including Tuluwat.

Seidner said her grandfather, Jerry James’ son, learned to hide his identity.

“When he was growing up, it wasn’t good to know your language or know your culture because you got a spanking in school for speaking your language,” she said.

Many traditions were also lost during this period, and celebrations like the World Renewal Ceremony ceased.

A small building sits on the waterfront of a stretch of land covered in low growing vegetation.
A 6-acre, 14-foot deep clamshell mound lifts the north end of Tuluwat Island above the bay on July 11, 2023. In 1860, the Wiyot Tribe celebrated their World Renewal Ceremony here. (Izzy Bloom/KQED)

But Michelle Vassel, the current tribal administrator, said Wiyot people never forgot what happened on Tuluwat.

“Wiyot people had always intended to go back to the island,” Vassel said. “I don’t think there was ever a generation in which that wasn’t happening.”

In the 1970s, Jerry James’ great-grandson, Albert James, approached the Eureka city council and asked for the island back.

His niece, Cheryl Seidner, was a teenager at the time and remembers him being turned away partly because their tribe wasn’t federally recognized.

The Wiyots, along with more than a hundred other tribes across the country, had lost their status in the ‘50s and ‘60s under the federal “termination policy.”

Under termination, the U.S. government dissolved treaties, dismantled tribal governments and eliminated reservations, seizing more than a million acres of indigenous land. Termination policy continued until the 1970s when President Richard Nixon repealed it.

Meanwhile, Albert James and the Wiyot Tribe spent six years fighting a lawsuit against the federal government to win its federal recognition back. They succeeded in 1981.

“This little bitty tribe took on the giant of the world, that’s the U.S. government,” Seidner said. “And we won. Wow.”

Reclaiming a Slice of Tuluwat

Following her uncle’s success, Seidner picked up the fight for land back in the early 1990s. She and her older sister, Leona Wilkinson, began holding candlelight vigils on Woodley Island, right across the bay from Tuluwat, to commemorate the lives lost in the 1860 massacre.

People from all over came to the vigils. It was a turning point.

“That group of people that came to those vigils became like a movement that really changed the history of Eureka,” Vassel said.

In 1999, a sliver of land on the island went up for sale. The plot sat on the northern end of the island, where the massacre had taken place.

A person stands at the top of a hill over looking the ocean.
Cheryl Seidner overlooks the South Jetty in Loleta on Sept. 22, 2023. (Alexandra Hootnick for KQED)

Seidner was determined to purchase the 1.5 acres of the island — despite the asking price of more than $100,000.

“The Wiyot tribe is a small tribe,” Vassel said. “We don’t have a casino. We don’t have any form of economic development. So we didn’t have the money for it.”

At the time, Seidner was the tribal chairwoman. She took the proposition to her tribal council. They unanimously voted yes.

The tribe sold T-shirts and Indian tacos, held concerts and art auctions. Seidner went on a speaking tour to raise money. Children from the local elementary school even had a bake sale.

By 2000, they’d raised enough money to purchase the land.

It was just a tiny fraction of the 280-acre island. But it was a start.

The Story of #LandBack That’s Easy to Miss

As communities and elected officials discuss reparations for historical wrongdoings, one of the big ways California has been making amends to Native Americans is by returning their sacred land. These days, indigenous land return is happening all over the state — and across the country.

In 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom set aside $100 million to help Native American tribes buy back their ancestral lands. The allocation was part of his 30×30 conservation goal to preserve 30% of state lands and coastal waters by 2030.

The #LandBack movement that’s gained momentum since 2016 tells a story about people trying to do the right thing.

But the reality and process are a lot more complicated.

“We purchased the property, and when we first got it, you literally couldn’t walk across it because it was just filled with this mass of tangled metals and chunks of wood,” Vassel said. “So if you were to walk on it, you’d get cut and have to get a tetanus shot.”

Tuluwat Island hadn’t exactly landed in responsible hands in 1860. Its white owners let a company build a dry dock and shipyard so that over the next century, the island became a toxic wasteland.

Vassel recalled rusting vats of chemicals and even an entire seawall made of old marine boat batteries.

“Every day, the tide’s coming in, it’s washing across the batteries, and then it’s going back out, and that’s all contaminating our local bay,” she said.

“What we see in a lot of the cases of land return is that people are returned lands that they have to restore and bring up to compliance with current environmental laws and policies,” said Cutcha Risling Baldy, department chair of Native American Studies at Cal Poly Humboldt, who has worked on land back projects across the state.

“Oftentimes, they’re lands that also need a lot of rebuilding from things that have happened throughout colonization,” Risling Baldy said.

The waterfront of a marshy island is seen.
Tuluwat Island, the center of Wiyot ancestral lands and the tribe’s spiritual center of the universe, in Humboldt Bay on Sept. 27, 2023. (Alexandra Hootnick for KQED)

Advocates and legal experts say indigenous groups often get land returned with all kinds of strings attached. This is the story of #LandBack that’s easy to miss.

Land donors can receive a tax deduction for donating land or selling at below-market value to an indigenous-led organization. But sometimes, that land is unproductive farmland or contaminated and can come with heavy financial burdens for the tribe.

“It really does curtail their freedom to use it as they see fit,” said Janelle Orsi, co-founder of the Sustainable Economies Law Center. “But on the other hand, we don’t want the land to just get sold into the speculative market.”

Cleaning Up Tuluwat Island

In the case of Tuluwat, Wiyot tribal administrator Michelle Vassel said that even if it’s contaminated, the land has inherent value. It’s sacred.

“We fully knew purchasing that 1.5 acres that [it] was [an] environmental disaster site,” she said. “I don’t think we really cared at that time.”

Vassel said that from an indigenous perspective, the goal is to restore the land’s health, regardless of how many years it takes.

And cleaning up Tuluwat took a long time.

At first, it was mostly just Wiyot families and volunteers taking down two decrepit buildings and a water tower, then filling barges with more than 60 tons of iron and steel.

But as the cleanup wore on, it was impossible for Eurekans not to notice what was happening on Tuluwat, an area most non-indigenous locals used to call “Indian Island.”

“It’s literally in the middle of the bay. Each time you’re driving around Eureka, you can see it,” Vassel said. “When people are out there with hazmat suits doing the soil remediation, people saw that.”

Eventually, the broader Eureka community started to pitch in, removing tangled masses of metal and wood, or volunteering at fundraising events. A local seafood restaurant donated shells to build up the eroding shell mound, which contains not only centuries of discarded shells eaten by Wiyot people but also bits and pieces of tools, ceremonial items and even human burial remains.

“I think it really changed whatever preconceived ideas people [in the broader Eureka community] have about tribes,” Vassel said. “They saw something different.”

Reparations, With Strings Attached?

The tribe wanted to figure out how to get back more than just the 1.5 acres they purchased in 2002. About 245 acres of the 280-acre island was owned by the city of Eureka, and the rest by private landowners.

Two years after the Wiyot tribe bought the initial slice of land, Eureka elected a new mayor.

Peter LaVallee won the mayoral seat by a slim margin of just 42 votes. Right away, Seidner asked him to work with the city and tribal councils to return the city-owned portion of Tuluwat to the tribe.

“I didn’t know that it was going to be a precedent setter, but I thought, ‘Oh my God, these people, they were decimated,’” LaVallee said. “We have an opportunity here to make a reparation for something really bad that happened.”

LaVallee brought the issue to city council.

“In the council, there was a lot of debate about, ‘well, if we give this back, what assurances will we have that they don’t build a casino out there?’ ” LaVallee said.

The city council decided to create their own assurances. They told the Wiyot tribal council that the city would return 45 acres to the tribe, which would be contractually prohibited from building a casino on it.

Michelle Vassel was insulted. “What a rude thing to say,” she said. “Could you imagine if all your ancestors are buried in this one cemetery, and then you’re going to build a convenience store on top of that? That’s a rude thing that you would say about me and my family, that I would do something like that.”

Casinos are a pretty big sticking point when it comes to the Land Back movement. Casino stipulations are often included in land return contracts across the state.

Two people inspect an object that one of them is holding in an outdoor setting.
Hilanea Wilkinson (left) and Adam Canter, the Natural Resources Director for the Wiyot Tribe (right), examine animal bones on Tuluwat Island on July 11, 2023. (Izzy Bloom/KQED)

In 2021, for example, CalTrans returned 172 acres of Mendocino oceanfront, including the popular Blues Beach, to a nonprofit run by three tribes — the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians, the Round Valley Indian Tribes and the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians. The land was returned on the condition that they wouldn’t build a casino. The tribes are also required to use the land for conservation, or else it can revert to CalTrans ownership.

The contract for Tuluwat Island also prevented the Wiyot Tribe from putting the land into a federal trust, which would have made them eligible for federal funding to help with the cleanup.

“The idea that we as a sovereign nation don’t get to choose our fate is not preferable,” Vassel said. “The opportunity to make choices about what we do with the land in the future — it’s a sovereignty issue, a self-governance issue.”

The Return of the World Renewal Ceremony

It took almost 15 years to clean up Tuluwat Island. In 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a clean bill of health.

Finally, the Wiyot Tribe could celebrate the return of their land on the island and complete the ceremony that had been interrupted in 1860.

In 2019, Eureka returned the remaining 200 city-owned acres to the tribe.

This time, after hearing the tribe’s concerns, they returned the land without any strings attached.

Since the return of Tuluwat, the tribe has continued working on native plants and cultural restoration on the island, with the goal of holding the World Renewal Ceremony on the land every year.

“The people of Eureka really changed their history,” Vassel said. “They went from being the city that made worldwide headlines as ‘Murderville’ to being the first city that returned land back voluntarily to a tribe.”

This story was supported by the 11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship.

The Wiyot archival music in this story was used with permission from the California Language Archive and from Cheryl Seidner and the Wiyot Tribe.

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Archival tape of Radio Free Alcatraz was used with permission from the Pacífica Radio Archives: Historic Recordings since 1949.

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