Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
The Wiyot Tribe was driven from California’s Duluwat Island in 1860. After decades of lobbying by the tribe, the Eureka City Council returned it.
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 told KQED. “Usually tribes have to go out and purchase it and buy it and fight to get back what was … taken from them.”
The Wiyot’s lost island is among the millions of acres that were taken by the federal government since the inception of the United States, seized either by force or by signing treaties in exchange for services. Deals to get tribal land back have been brokered, but most involve tribes paying landowners in exchange for the deed. Others have been achieved through national legislation: In Western Oregon, a Tribal Fairness Act approved by President Donald Trump restored more than 30,000 acres of public land to tribes in the region this year.
Duluwat’s return started with a purchase. In the 1990s, 1.5 acres at the northern tip of the island went up for sale, spurring a fundraising campaign by the Wiyot Tribe. They sold pins, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and posters, and rallied donors. By 2000, the tribe had raised more than $100,000 to buy the plot—but not fast enough. They missed the first deadline to put in a bid by only a few days, so the price was raised to $106,000. Again, the Wiyot fundraised until the land, finally, was theirs. In 2004, the city of Eureka donated another 45 acres to the tribe.
Taking back the 202 acres that remained under city control was a feat that took 15 years to achieve. After two unanimous city council votes across two different city councils, Eureka declared Duluwat Island surplus land in December 2018. On October 21, 2019, an official transfer ceremony was held.
So how did the unprecedented happen in Eureka, a small city of 27,000 on the North Coast of California? The story is about decades of persistence by Seidner and other tribal leaders, strong partners in Eureka’s city council, and a gradual self-reckoning among Eureka locals about an ugly piece of the town’s history. But Seidner is modest.
“It was just the right time,” she said.
On the northernmost edge of Duluwat Island, there is a bump. It’s a midden, made from crushed shells, food scraps, and tools left behind by the Wiyot people. Two Wiyot fishing villages once thrived on each side of the island, and over thousands of years, as the shells were stacked higher and higher, more land rose. When a king tide comes in, the midden is the only part of the island that doesn’t dip under water.
“The island was created by the Wiyot people, just like the Wiyot people were created on the island,” said Wiyot tribal administrator Michelle Vassel.
According to tribal history, Duluwat’s 250-odd acres form the center of the Wiyot Universe, and, as Vassal says, is the land from which the tribe was born. For generations, it’s also where the tribe held its sacred “world renewal” ceremony every February, a seven-to-ten-day celebration during which the tribe “rebalanced the world” and rang in their new year.
But for a long time, world renewal day went uncelebrated. In 1860, on the day of a rebalancing ceremony, Duluwat Island was the site of a brutal massacre that killed approximately 100 to 250 tribal people. As most of the men were away preparing for a ceremony, the victims were largely women, children, and male elders, according to historical accounts. The murders, committed by men from Humboldt County, were brutal; “one of over a dozen massacres [of Native Americans] that occurred over five days time” in the area, according to historian Jerry Rohde.
That day marked the beginning of a long and systematic attempted erasure of Wiyot culture, the outlines of an experience shared by many Native American tribes in the United States: Survivors of the massacre were jailed in a nearby Army fort and forbidden to use their own language. Wiyot were stripped of their federal tribal status in 1958, at a time when dozens of other tribes across the country were being barred from practicing their religions. While the Wiyot Tribe was formally recognized again in 1990 (unlike the nearly 80 tribes in California that have yet to regain their status) their population has been eroded: In the 1800s, about 3,000 Wiyot people lived in 20 villages spread across 40 square miles in Humboldt County. Today, only about 650 Wiyot people are enrolled tribal citizens. Many of them are descendants of those who lived on Duluwat Island and were displaced. At the Table Bluff reservations, the tribe has formed a new community.
In the century following the massacre, Duluwat Island’s ecosystem suffered, too. Days before the massacre, a white settler named Robert Gunther bought the land from another man who’d laid his claim on it through the federal government. Gunther turned the island into a cattle ranch, digging deep dikes and draining marshes. He planted cypress trees to mask his mansion from the shore. In 1870, the part of the island that once hosted the renewal ceremony was turned into a shipyard where oyster fishermen got their boats repaired. By the 1990s, the yard was abandoned, and fell deeper into decline. Mangled metal boat parts and rusting oil and paint barrels littered the ground, says Vassel. An erosion-prevention sea wall built of boatyard batteries oozed toxic sludge into the bay.
Back on shore, the city of Eureka was also changing: Lumber mills opened and closed; Humbolt County’s cannabis industry started to thrive; a homelessness and substance-abuse crisis grew.
But Seidner and other tribal leaders weren’t content to let the Wiyot’s link to Duluwat Island fade from memory. Starting in 1992, Seidner joined her sister, Leona Wilkinson, and a group of non-Native Eurekans in organizing yearly vigils marking the 1860 massacre. And after the first purchase of 1.5 acres of land, the Wiyot worked tirelessly to transform the island.
Nearly every weekend for years, members of the tribe and other volunteers in the community worked to remove the piles of debris that had accumulated on the grounds. The battery seawall was slowly replaced with a less-toxic one made of oyster shells donated by a local seafood company. Railroad tracks that led into the bay, once used for lifting boats, were removed. To date, the tribe says it’s cleared 60 tons of scrap metal and garbage and invested $3 million in Duluwat’s rehabilitation. In 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave Duluwat Island a clean bill of health.
Hilanea Wilkinson, Seidner’s 18-year-old grandniece and Leon’s granddaughter, started coming to these clean-ups with her father as a child. The way she first remembers the island, it was overgrown, and far less green. As volunteers worked on the land, they unearthed bones that she believes were her ancestors; casualties of the 1860 massacre. “It was almost unreal,” she said. “They’d just chop them and leave them.” On another side of the island, an ancient burial site had been pillaged. There were deep divots in the ground, Wilkinson said—spots where grave robbers had torn through the dirt to find tools to pawn. She and her father reburied the human remains together.
Vassel credits the vigils with forcing Eureka citizens to confront and understand the “deep community wound” that was inflicted in 1860. And the Wiyot’s clean-up effort helped convince the city that, as stewards of the land, the tribe would perform a public environmental good. “A lot of people didn’t like what the history of Eureka was, and many people turned their back on it and just pretended like it didn’t happen,” she said. “Other people came to the vigils. And that’s when the real work started … People came out and said they wanted to do something.”
“And so we all would say, ‘Contact your city councilmen!’” Seidner said. “Let them know that something needs to get done!” All the while, she and other local leaders were working towards a larger reclamation of the land.
The Wiyot first asked Eureka’s city council to return the island in the 1970s, Seidner said, only to be shot down quickly. When she brought up the possibility again in the early 1990s, she says she was “chewed out” by a council member. After Seidner became tribal chairwoman in 1996, she asked again. By then, the city council had started listening.
Kim Bergel, 53, a councilwoman and fourth-generation Eurekan, played a key role in pushing for the complete return. She first learned about the Wiyot massacre in the third grade, on the ferry tour of Humboldt Bay that’s still a fundamental part of most local public school’s curriculums. But while the massacre has long been acknowledged in Eureka’s history, it would be decades before the idea of making reparations took hold among non-Wiyot Eurekans. In October, sitting on the same deck of the same boat that carried her in third grade—the Madaket, the oldest passenger-carrying vessel in continuous service in the United States—with her children in tow, Bergel said she never thought she’d be part of making things right.
In 2014, then-mayor Frank Jäger wrote a stirring apology letter to the Wiyot people, apologizing for the massacre on behalf of the city council and people of Eureka. Fearing legal repercussions that the North Coast Journal reported were unfounded, Eureka’s then-city attorney made Jäger water down the letter’s language. The final copy presented to council was more of a “non-apology,” Bergel said. “It was like a slap in the face to the tribe—to the community, really—that we would behave in such an atrocious way.”
Spurred on by her frustration, Bergel decided to run for the city council and made returning the island to the tribe a personal goal. Natalie Arroyo, another new council representative, had the same intention. Together, they formed a committee and joined in the effort with Wiyot leaders who had been working toward the same goal for so many years.
“We always knew that it would happen,” said Bergel. “It’s just that the process was taking so long.”
Public land transfers are complicated processes, but this particular transaction was especially tangled: The North Coast Journal reported that the deal was “bogged down by issues with the State Lands Commission and the title company overseeing the transfer.” Vassel added that the issues stemmed from how the city of Eureka acquired the island in the first place, which “is strange because it wasn’t legally taken.”
The first city council vote on exploring a land return took place in 2015, shortly after Bergel and Arroyo joined the team, and it was unanimous. For four years afterwards, the tribal council and the city council—or their respective staffs—met or spoke on the phone quarterly to try to expedite the bureaucratic process.
“I was talking to Ted [Hernandez] one day at the elders’ dinner and he said to me, ‘How’s it going?’ And I said, ‘Ugh, it’s taking so long!’ And he’s like, ‘Kim—Creator’s got this. And when it’s supposed to happen, it will,’” Bergel said. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me right now? That’s not a good enough answer!’ But he was right.”
Since that first vote, no more vigils have been held. Instead, 2014—the year the EPA deemed Duluwat Island safe for habitation—marked the first time the tribe celebrated world renewal day in more than 150 years. “We no longer have to lament over the loss,” said Seidner.
The National Congress of American Indians hopes that Eureka’s story will encourage other cities to follow. “We look forward to other such land transfers from cities to tribal nations and hopes this serves as a practical path forward to resolve similar issues elsewhere involving tribal nations,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement.
There are some parts of the island that haven’t been returned to the Wiyot, and likely won’t be. A few locals, including a former mayor, still own private land on the island, their houses speckling 10 percent of the tiny coast. Seidner says the Wiyot Tribe is content to be a good neighbor to them. “We know what it feels to be marched here and marched there. We know what it’s like to lose our land,” she said. “We will not do that to somebody else.”
Still, some members of the community pushed back on the plan. One local business owner offered to buy the land off the city for $500,000, saying just giving it away would be irresponsible. (“This is absolutely the equivalent of paying reparations, which is foolish,” he told the Times-Standard.) Other skeptics worried the tribe would build a casino on the plot once the city passed on the deed, Bergel said.
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.”
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!”