Robust Resilience of the Wiyot Tribe

By September 17, 2005Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 17

When you go to a place and want to truly understand, it’s good to speak with folks who’ve been living there for quite a while. In the case of Humboldt Bay, you can’t do better than visiting with a few surviving members of the Wiyot Tribe.

After another gale forced a break in our sea kayak voyage from Oregon to San Francisco. I, Bo Barnes and John Weed had to stay holed up for almost four days on Woodley Island, in the Port of Eureka.

Wiyot tribal chairwoman Cheryl Seidner and her sister, Leona Wilkinson. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Wiyot tribal chairwoman Cheryl Seidner and her sister, Leona Wilkinson. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

On one of those afternoons, we met up with Cheryl Seidner and her sister Leona Wilkinson of the Wiyots. No one is known to have dwelt in the Humboldt Bay region longer than their tribe.

“We have been here in Humboldt Bay for about 10,000 years,” Wilkinson said, as she led us out to a sacred site on Indian Island, just offshore from Eureka. “Evidence takes us back at least 8,000 years.”

During the last 200 years of that vast history, the trail turned rough for the Wiyots. Recently, their path has begun to smooth and straighten once more.

On earlier research trips to the North Coast, I met with Marnie Atkins, the tribe’s cultural director, and Seidner, tribal chairwoman. They spoke of the tragic past of the place now called Indian Island. Wiyots knew it as their sacred village of Tuluwat.

This low bay island near the city of Eureka had been center of the Wiyot universe. But during this tribe’s world-renewal ceremony in 1860, it became scene of a brutal massacre by a gang of settlers.

After, Tuluwat vanished under the piers, ways and structures of an industrial boatyard. Now, this place has been taken back into hands of the Wiyots. They are dismantling dilapidated structures and cleansing the land. They intend that a dance house once again will arise here.

After a silence of 150 years, Wiyot singing will echo again over waters of Humboldt Bay.

Survivors of a Massacre

“One baby survived the killing on that day,” tribal chairwoman Seidner told me. “After the massacre, people of Eureka went out there. They found an old woman out on a mudflat, singing a mourning song. They found a little girl, a toddler, still alive. And under the body of a dead woman, they found a live baby, still attempting to nurse. That infant boy was the son of the headman, called Captain Jim, so he was named Jerry James.

“Jerry James was my mother’s grandfather.”

Seidner, 55, is a woman with flowing dark hair, a broad face, warm and lively eyes, and a direct, forthright manner. She’s held the tribal chair for five two-year terms, and over the course of her tenure, regaining a tribal presence on the so-called Indian Island has been a major order of business.

“Here’s what I want to do,” Seidner explained. “Achieve major economic development. Finish this island project. See our language revive. And I want to bring back the dancing.”

The Sacred Island of Tuluwat

In June 2004, wearing a white deerskin cape and traditional necklaces, Seidner sat in a redwood dugout canoe paddled near Tuluwat by boatmen descended from Wiyot, Yurok, Hupa, Maidu and Pit River bloodlines. In a ceremony, they took possession of 67 acres transferred to the tribe a month earlier by the Eureka city council’s unanimous vote.

That land added to 1.5 acres of pivotal ground, bought from the boatyard owners by the tribe for $106,000 in 2000.

“When we paddled away from the island, I thought, ‘Wow. We did it!’ I knew we could. Until that moment, I at times was not quite believing it.” Seidner said.

Related by language and blood to the Yuroks of Klamath River country to the north, several thousand Wiyots once dwelt in a territory ranging from south of the Eel River (itself named “Wiyot”) north to the Mad River (“Batwat”). Central feature of the territory, of course was the bay (“Wiki”), which then sprawled over 27,000 acres (it’s smaller now, due to infill).

Center of that center was Tuluwat.

As Seidner watched us from the shoulder of highway 255 – which touches down on Indian Island on its way out to the Samoa Peninsula – Wilkinson led me, Barnes and Chronicle photographer Mike Maloney down a muddy path which very few are now permitted to traverse. Due to the hazardous waste and jagged trash at the boatyard, it’s considered too dangerous until cleanup is completed.

“We’re almost done with that part,” Wilkinson said, as she stepped gingerly around jagged metal, oil-soaked earth, a marine railway for hauling out boats. Wilkinson resembles her younger sister in many ways, but her hair is gray, and her directness is tempered by a dignified reserve.

“We had four barges of trash, each holding about three tons,” she said. “The previous owners had even piled up old engine batteries to make a seawall.”

There’s one big metal shed left on the site, several rotting wooden shacks. They sit right atop a high, deep, wide shell mound or midden of shell fragments and Wiyot burial sites, the historic record of their long occupancy of the site.

“Several (woven basketry) skull caps washed up during the cleanup,” Wilkinson said. “We’ll rebury those at an appropriate time.”

To Restore a Ceremonial Site

We stood at the edge of the mound, where the Wiyots plan to vibrate metal sheets into the ground, to halt tidal erosion. On nearby mudflats, tawny sandpipers, willets and other shorebirds probed for dinner.

Leona Wilkinson on Tuluwat, formerly known as Indian Island. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Leona Wilkinson on Tuluwat, formerly known as Indian Island. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

“I like to stand out here sometimes, and imagine this all without the city lights,” Wilkinson said. “I think of how it was, with all those dugout canoes coming over the bay, people dressed in their finest as they arrived for ceremonies.”

The first two settler massacres of the Wiyot took place in 1852 and 1858. Next, early on the morning of February 26, 1860, a locally infamous brute (allegedly named Larrabee) and a few confederates rowed out to the island to attack the Wiyots with hatchets, clubs and knives. They didn’t want gunfire to arouse sleeping Eureka citizens. Victims were mainly women and children; Wiyot men were away gathering food and supplies to bring to the festival. Two other villages, on the Eel River and on the bay’s south spit, were also attacked at that very same day

Tuluwat had been sold out from under the Wiyots. A man named Gunther had “bought” it, from someone, just a few days earlier.

The Wiyots, never all that many to begin with, plummeted in numbers, along with their health and fortunes. By the end of 1860, there were less than 200 full-blooded Wiyot left; by 1910, fewer than 100. The last fluent speaker of the language died in 1962. Surviving tribal people were herded to Fort Humboldt, then off to distant reservations.

Yet always and in all ways, they sought to return home. The last corner available to them was Table Bluff, at the south end of the bay. Presently, there is a small reservation of 88 acres, and 465 people on tribal rolls.

Renewal of a Nearly Lost World

Where fate of Indian Island is concerned, today the citizens of Eureka have chosen not to sleep. Wilkinson expresses a great deal of gratitude to local oyster growers for contributing shells to stabilize the mound, a local seafood restaurant that underwrote cost of the trash barges, citizens who have contributed to the Tuluwat restoration fund and participated in annual memorial ceremonies.

She stood atop the midden at the center of Tuluwat.

“Everyone in the tribe has a different feeling about this,” Wilkinson said. “But young people and the elders are all excited about coming out here again.

“When I’m here, it doesn’t make me sad. This is where our family came from. It feels good to work here with family and friends, bringing it back.  It will happen in my lifetime. A dance will take place here within three years. We have spoken with other tribes. They said, ‘We will help you when you are ready.’”

California’s North Coast offers some profound examples of resilience and hardiness.

Gray whales that migrate along a 10,000-mile loop offshore were reduced by whaling to 1,500 individuals or less. Protected by the Endangered Species Act, they have now rebounded to a mighty, spouting, yearly parade of 20,000 animals.

Ancient sequoias, coast redwood trees, if sawn down, often resurrect by sending up vivid green shoots, or “burl sprouts” from their root balls.

Now, among the resilient, number the Wiyot, as Tuluwat – like a Brigadoon for Native Americans – once more emerges from drifting bay mists.

A thing to bear in mind is that as they do that dance, it’s a world renewal ceremony. So, resurrection of Tuluwat should be a sign of hope for all of us.

Regaining the Wiyot Way

Marnie Atkins, cultural director for Humboldt Bay’s Wiyot Tribe, confronts a sizeable task. Simply put, the cultural resources available to her aren’t abundant. No living, fluent Wiyot speakers remain. All that exists are old tapes of their speech and songs. Records or even tribal memories of Wiyot dances, rituals or stories may exist, but have not been located.

There are no full sets of “regalia” — elaborate outfits crafted of shell, bead, buckskin and feathers that North Coast tribes commonly used in ceremonies. (Possession of regalia also established tribal status and social potency for their holders.) Well, there may not be regalia near the Wiyots’ Table Bluff reservation at the south end of the bay. But there is some in Washington D.C.

Potent emotions swept through Atkins as she found a historic dance skirt in a collection at the Smithsonian Institute. Finds like this may serve as a guide for her and other tribal members as they seek to re-create elements of their culture.

“There was an official event at Smithsonian’s Native American Museum in September of 2004,” Atkins relates. “I went with the idea that they could have something of ours in a collection. Or if not, something interesting to see that came from one of our neighboring tribes. It’s always good to keep an eye.

“A person from the Native American Grave Repatriation department gave us a presentation. Then they held an open house. I had made an appointment to go into the collection and have a look.

“I was told they had no Wiyot artifacts. But I thought I recognized some baskets. Sure enough, they were Wiyot! And I felt there was something Wiyot on a shelf up higher. So I looked. And there was a dance skirt! A very sacred item.

“Honestly, I didn’t find it. It found me. I believe it came back into our lives because of the land. Because we can now return to Tuluwat. That skirt was ready to be found. To come home and dance once again.”

“From this, I knew things should go alright. Even if it takes us another 20 years. From this, we will be able to learn to build other ceremonial skirts again.

“I hope to negotiate with the museum. Some items there have been treated with pesticides. I don’t think this one has. We’ll offer to make them a replica to put in their collection. But this one, we’ll say, has a spirit, a beautiful spirit. It feels pain now. It needs to come home, to be part of a ceremony, part of our culture once more.”