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Tribe Moves Toward Restoring Its World

Wiyots raise funds to buy part of the island where ancestors where slaughtered in 1860. But some say money was poorly spent.

March 09, 2003|Kim Baca | Associated Press Writer

EUREKA, Calif. — Gathering around a fire with local non-Indians, members of the Wiyot tribe sang songs of peace and mourning at a vigil to mark the day that their world changed 140 years ago.

The Wiyots were nearly wiped out on a cold February morning in 1860 when a group of white men raided their island home, and stabbed and bludgeoned 60 to 70 Indians as they slept.

"We lost our children, we lost our women, we lost our elders," said Cheryl Seidner, the Wiyot chairwoman, who led the vigil one weekend last month.

Just before they were slaughtered, the Wiyots had finished a similar ritual, praying for peace and harmony at a time when white settlers were moving into their world hoping to find fortunes in gold.

About 200 Eurekans and Indians from the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa tribes joined the Wiyots in this year's ceremony, which Seidner and others said gave them reason to feel hopeful for the future of the Wiyots, who now number 360 people.

Hard work remains when it comes to restoring the tribe's world. And much of that work centers on a tiny sliver of Indian Island where their ancestors died. The vigil was held just across the water, in view of that spot.

The Wiyots aren't rich. They don't have a casino. As with many Indians, generations of Wiyots have survived by marrying outside their tribe and finding jobs off their isolated reservation. Inevitably, much of their cultural heritage has been lost.

But a few years ago, they managed to do something remarkable -- selling sweatshirts and fry bread, and seeking donations from other tribes, they raised $106,000 and bought back 1.5 acres on the island's northern tip.

Some tribal members said the money would have been better spent helping young people on the Wiyots' reservation, about 30 miles to the south. But others see the island as the key to their future as a tribe.

"We've been absent for more than a century," said Seidner, 53. The island "is our universe. It's the center of our world."

Long before California became a state, the Wiyots lived in a village they called Tuluwat on the island, fishing for salmon and hunting once-abundant wildlife in the nearby redwood forests.

In the 1850s, droves of prospectors arrived, naming their town after the phrase, "Eureka, I found it!" Ships carrying gold miners and equipment from San Francisco found easy harbor in the bay.

The Wiyots and other tribes remained in the area, trying to live as they always had, until Feb. 26, 1860.

What led to the attack that day?

Bret Harte, editor of the Northern Californian newspaper, wrote three days later that "friendly Indians" had been accused of cattle rustling and giving firearms to other tribes. Whatever the spark, the attack was brutal.

"Old women, wrinkled and decrepit, lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long gray hair," Harte wrote. He described infants with "their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds."

The predawn raiders also slaughtered Indians in two other nearby villages. In retaliation, Indians killed several ranchers.

The remaining Wiyots were rounded up and forced to live with other Indians on a remote bluff top near the southern edge of Humboldt Bay. They lost some of this land through congressional actions and regained some through a lawsuit. Today, the tribe's Table Bluff Reservation covers 88 acres.

A narrow two-lane road takes visitors to the isolated reservation, where a few dozen houses sit on grassy rolling hills surrounding the tribal office.

At a health fair in the tribal hall's dining room, children ran back and forth with cake and Coke, couples held babies -- and Geraldine Rubira, 66, smiled at all the young Wiyots.

She hopes that they'll learn the tribal language one day. No Wiyots speak it fluently now. What remains of their language is archived on tapes at UC Berkeley; an anthropologist recorded the last speaker in the 1950s.

Time and intermarriage are partly responsible, but so was government policy. Rubira remembers when she was 5 and hid from federal agents, fearing that she would be sent away to boarding school, where many Indian children of that era were taught to suppress Indian customs.

She stayed on the reservation -- but lost her language nevertheless.

"Mom didn't want Daddy to tell the traditions. She said if we could learn the white ways, we would be better off," Rubira said. "She would say, 'Go ahead and tell, but don't practice them because it could hurt us.' "

Vince DiMarzo, 20, gets angry when he thinks of what his generation lacks.

"Our culture got robbed," he said. "We can't even fish on our own river. I have to pay $35 a year for a fishing license and $50 to $70 just to hunt deer."

Those fees are burdensome for the reservation's 60 struggling families. About 80% are unemployed and receive welfare, tribal officials said.

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