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Massacre Site Given to Tribe

In a ceremony 144 years after a Wiyot village was wiped out, deed to 40 acres is signed over to tribal chairwoman.

June 26, 2004|From Associated Press

EUREKA, Calif. — In a waterfront ceremony steeped in history and reconciliation, this city's mayor on Friday presented a tribal chief the deed to 40 acres -- the same land where the tribe was massacred by white intruders 144 years ago.

Amid cheers from about 500 onlookers, Mayor Pete La Vallee signed over the deed to Indian Island property to Cheryl A. Seidner, chairwoman of the Wiyot tribe.

The two also exchanged gifts -- La Vallee giving Seidner a symbolic handful of dirt from the island, and Seidner giving La Vallee a medicine bag containing a periwinkle shell for wealth, an acorn for food, Wiyot medicine for strength and tobacco for spirituality.

"I think what we are doing is reinventing history," La Vallee said Friday.

"You can't say you're sorry. But 144 years later, we can say it wasn't right and honor the culture of the tribe and its roots."

On Feb. 22, 1860, a band of white men invaded the Wiyot village at night, wiping out scores of elders, women and children as they slept.

The tribe had just performed a ceremony meant to renew the order of their world, and the men had left the island to get supplies for the remaining days of the celebration.

"We lost our regalia, our elders, our weavers and our dreamers -- all the things that make a community," Seidner said of the massacre. "We have not danced since that day. We have to relearn."

"I can't wait for that first dance," she said.

The Wiyot had been working toward this day since the 1970s, and in 2000 were able to buy 1.5 acres on the eastern tip of the island with $106,000 they earned selling fry bread, sweat shirts and T-shirts.

They've been cleaning up the remains of an old boatyard on the site and received a $200,000 federal grant to assist that effort. Eventually, Eureka's City Council and mayor decided to go even further and give the tribe 40 acres the city owned on the 250-acre island.

Seidner credits a reconciliation conference at the First Baptist Church in neighboring Arcata three years ago for creating an atmosphere that made Friday's ceremony possible.

The Rev. Clay Ford said that when he learned of the massacre, he and others wanted to offer an apology in the spirit of Jesus taking on the sins of the world.

"It's dawning on more and more Christians to see the need that there is for us to repent for the sins of the past," Ford said from Wisconsin, where he was attending church meetings.

"I wrote a proclamation of repentance acknowledging that though we personally weren't there when the massacre happened, we represented Christian people and churches who did nothing, as far as we could tell, to make things right.

And we apologized and asked for forgiveness."

The massacre was one of three the same day, Seidner said. More Indians were killed on South Spit and at the mouth of the Eel River.

According to "Indian Wars of the Northwest," by A.J. Bledsoe, published in 1908, the killers were known in the community but never prosecuted.

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