(TMU) — Like the rest of the United States, for thousands of years present-day California was home to the Native American peoples. And as was the case across the country, in California around 16,000 indigenous Natives were wiped out through a combination of discriminatory laws and attacks by federal authorities, state officials, and local militias that executed the genocide of the state’s original inhabitants.
However, an island off the coast of California is finally being returned to the small Wiyot Tribe after an unprecedented formal transfer of the land to the group by the City of Eureka in Northern California.
Known for decades as “Indian Island” and originally known as Duluwat Island, it was once the spiritual and physical center of the Wiyot nation before being purchased by a dairy farmer without their consent in 1860. Days later, Eureka residents massacred an untold number of Wiyot, including women and children.
The land, which included the sacred Tuluwat village, then became plagued by invasive species and contaminated by a ship yard.
But now, the island will belong to the Wiyot people in its entirety after the city transferred all city deeds to the tribe.
In an emotional ceremony late last month, Eureka Mayor Susan Seaman finalized the formal transfer to the Wiyot people of the largest island in Humboldt Bay.
Tribal chairman Ted Hernandez held back tears as he thanked friends and family for urging him not to give up on regaining the land, even when prospects of its return seemed slim. He commented:
“Today is a good day to be alive.”
Cutcha Risling Baldy, an assistant professor of Native American studies at Humboldt State University, explained:
“We never gave up on our land or where we came from.
And that’s the story I want people to know.
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.”
For countless generations, Wiyot people had conducted the annual World Renewal Ceremony at Tuluway Village. That same ceremony was happening when the invading settlers at Eureka massacred innocent Wiyot families, and the next ritual ceremony was only held again in 2014 when elders revived the tradition, which symbolized the healing of the Earth.
Former mayor Frank Jäger signed a formal apology for the massacre at the time. An earlier and much stronger draft of the letter, which wasn’t approved by the council, was read aloud during the transfer.
In the apology, Jäger wrote:
“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.
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 attempt at offering some restitution to Native Californians comes months after Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in June that apologized for the “violence, maltreatment and neglect” the state’s original peoples suffered at the hands of authorities and white settler-colonizers.
In 1851, California’s first executive, Governor Peter Burnett, urged lawmakers to prepare for “a war of extermination” that would continue “until the Indian race becomes extinct.”
Offering an apology at the site of the future California Indian Heritage Center in West Sacramento, Newsom said:
“California must reckon with our dark history.
We can never undo the wrongs inflicted on the peoples who have lived on this land that we now call California since time immemorial, but we can work together to build bridges, tell the truth about our past and begin to heal deep wounds.”
The governor also pledged to establish a “truth and healing council” to provide Native peoples’ perspectives on the historical record. Newsom added:
“It’s called a genocide. That’s what it was. A genocide. [There’s] no other way to describe it and that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books.
And so I’m here to say the following: I’m sorry on behalf of the state of California.”
A year ago, Hernandez hailed the expected transfer as “a step in the right direction” in an interview with the Times-Standard.
Our ancestors will be at rest and at peace, and the ceremonies will be able to continue.”