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In California, a Native American Tribe’s Quest: Give Back Our Island

EUREKA, Calif.—Cheryl A. Seidner sat on a folding chair near the dock, wearing a basket-woven ceremonial cap. She looked out over the sharp stalks of grass and the flurry of long-billed curlews perched in the marsh and said: “This is a blessing, to be able to come out here.”

The mile-long island where Seidner sat basking in the October sun is in the middle of California’s Humboldt Bay, near downtown Eureka. This land has long represented loss to her and the other members of the Wiyot Tribe, the region’s Native American people, who call it their spiritual home. Now as Seidner, a Wiyot elder and a former tribal chair, looks out at the land, she sees possibility.

After more than a century, Duluwat Island—also called Tuluwat Island, or Indian Island by non-Native people and Google Maps—belongs to the Wiyot people again. In October, the city of Eureka signed the island’s deed back over to the tribe, in what the National Congress of American Indians calls the United States’ first known voluntary municipal land return achieved without sale, lawsuit, or trade.

“You don’t see too many government entities giving back traditional ceremonial land to tribes,” Wiyot tribal chair Ted Hernandez .) Other skeptics worried the tribe would build a casino on the plot once the city passed on the deed, Bergel said.

Tribal chairman Ted Hernandez speaks at the land return ceremony on October 21, 2019. (Eddy Alexander/City of Eureka.)

Given the tidal patterns, which can engulf much of the island, the upfront investment needed for such a build, and the sacred value of the land, Bergel says any casino-building seems extremely unlikely. But by signing away the acres—no strings attached, forever, and for free—the city has also signed away the future of Duluwat. The Wiyot Tribe can, and should, do whatever they want there, she said.

Where a vacant building now sits, Seidner hopes the tribe can build a dance center, and changing rooms for men and women. She and the rest of the tribe are already planning a grand world renewal day ceremony for 2020, when they’ll dance for three days.

“We need to bring balance back, to get rid of all the addictions hidden in Humboldt County—children not having homes, being homeless, there’s a lot going on,” tribal chair Hernandez told KQED. “I feel that since we’re in Wiyot country, everybody here needs that healing. That’s why the world renewal ceremony is important to us.”

The city wants to help with fundraising for that event, says Bergel, and she also says the council is working to bring a tribal member “to the table” in City Hall. But she says the bulk of the healing work came this October.

“I’m hopeful now that when people—especially our young people —look at what happened with the island, with the massacre, that they will realize that making amends is the most important piece,” Bergel said. “[It’s] a small thing considering what they went through, but it’s critical.”

Even after the decades of pain, Seidner hasn’t held onto resentment for the white settlers of Eureka. “It all depends how you’re indoctrinated into the ugliness of a society,” Seidner said. “The way my mom put it and my dad put it is: It happened back then. The people of today are not your enemy. With that, you come along and say you’re not my enemy—be my supporter.”

Where the Wiyot tribe’s world renewal ceremony will be held in 2020—only the second time since 1860. (Sarah Holder/CityLab)

Eddy Koch, the environmental director for the tribe, says he’s only just started exploring the 200 other acres that the Wiyot tribe now has to work with. But the change on this side of the island—where the Wiyots will celebrate world renewal day in March—is palpable, he says. Invasive spartina weeds have been cleared away, letting pickleweed and eelgrass flourish again, and opening up mudflats to shore birds. Egrets, who are said to be the souls of the Wiyot people watching over the island, peek out from the bushes.

“It’s ours!” Seidner yelled from the boat, as it pulled away from Duluwat’s shore. “Yee-ha!”

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