Located off the shore of Eureka in Humboldt Bay sits an island called Duluwat, better know as Indian Island, which holds a rich history of Native American activity. The Wiyot Tribe inhabited the island for over 1,000 years, before brutally losing the island to European settlers in the 1800’s.
Now, the City of Eureka has taken the unprecedented step to return the island to the people of the Wiyot Tribe.
Following an inspiring Eureka City Council meeting in December, the City of Eureka voted unanimously to return the 202 acres of city owned “surplus property” to the tribe. It’s a move that, according to experts, appears to be the first instance of a local municipal government returning land to a Native American tribe.
It’s a landmark victory for the Wiyot Tribe and and an unprecedented show of compassion from Eureka city officials.
“It’s sacred land,” Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez said to the North Coast Journal. “This is our sacred property. It’s where our ancestors are. That’s where our ancestors are buried, and that’s what we recognize it as. It’s the center of our world.”
The historical significance of Duluwat to the Wiyot Tribe can’t be understated. The island is home to the tribe’s annual World Renewal Ceremony, where around 20 villages in Humboldt would hold sacred celebrations for thousands of years. That is, until 1860, when the tribe’s grasp on the island was changed forever.
In what is now known as the 1860 Wiyot Massacre, white settlers killed nearly 300 members of the tribe in the middle of the night near the mouth of the Eel River during the annual World Renewal Ceremony in February. The massacre, along with other instances of disease and genocide associated with white settlers in California in the 1800’s, nearly wiped out the entire tribe.
The 1860 massacre was documented by journalist Bret Harte in the Northern Californian newspaper:
“When the facts were generally known, it appeared that of the some 60 or 70 killed on the island, at least 50 or 60 were women and children,” he wrote. “Neither age nor 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. We gathered from the survivors that four or five white men attacked the ranches at about 4 o’clock in the morning. No resistance was made, it is said, to the butchers who did the work, but as they ran or huddled together for protection like sheep, they were struck down with hatchets.”
While the island had effectively been ripped away from the devastated tribe, Robert Gunther claimed ownership of the island in 1860, leading to over a century of environmental abuse and destruction of sacred Native American sites.
In the 1950’s, 250 acres of the island was purchased by the City of Eureka. Now, they have returned it to the descendants of the brutal 1860 massacre.
Leading up to the annual World Renewal Ceremony in February, the tribe will once again be able to celebrate like they did for centuries on their sacred land on Duluwat. And now, the precedent could be set for other local communities returning sacred lands to local native tribes. For many, it’s the first step in healing following centuries of Native American maltreatment.