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writing for godot

The Healing of the World

Written by Steven Bridenbaugh   
Friday, 12 July 2013 06:40
I couldn't resist stopping the car, and walking over Samoa Bridge to make photographs of what was reported on the radio as a "king tide"-- one of the highest tides of the year. It isn't unusual to see parts of the channel islands in Humboldt Bay covered in water, but the views on that day were especially beautiful. Most of what is now known as Indian Island was completely covered with water, with the exception of an ancient midden, and a grove of cypress, home to a rookery of egrets.

Indian Island, formerly Gunther's Island, and other names before it, has an unusual history. It has been the site of a cattle operation, a duck hunting club, and a repair facility for wooden schooners. But before all that, Indian Island was the center of the universe to the Wiyot tribe, a highly civilized group of Coastal California Native Americans.

Just a few years ago, the Wiyots, who live on a 88 acre plot of land on the south side of the Bay, were able to purchase this half of the island. The small hill next to the boathouse in one of the photographs I took was an ancient midden, where the ancestors of the tribe were buried. An area museum once displayed a collection of zoomorphs stolen from the site fifty years ago by an amateur archeologist, a local dentist. He tried to make the objects, which resemble horses carved from flat pieces of slate, more attractive by painting them black and waxing them with shoe polish. They have been returned to the Wiyots, and re-interred, even though it will never be possible to know which went where.

It wasn't an easy process, for the tribe to make this acquisition, even though the land had no use to its owner. The Bureau of Land Management was fearful that the tribe might decide to build a casino there. But the tribe agreed to accept the property on limited terms, and successfully raised the large amount of money that was demanded by the owner of the title. They also agreed to assume the responsibility for removing toxic waste from the midden and surrounding areas, a process which is consuming an enormous amount of volunteer labor on the part of the tribe. Apparently, an Indian burial mound is a great place to dispose of your used boat oil. They plan to build a ceremonial lodge there, accessible only by boat.

Humboldt Bay is unusual, in that many of the effects of climate change are arriving earlier than elsewhere on the Pacific Coast. The tectonic motion is uplifting most areas on the Pacific coast , but in this locale, the level of the land is becoming lower. I attended a presentation, at the Eureka City Council, by a geologist who was advocating that the Council accept an offer by the California Coastal Commission, to initiate a study of the effects of climate change in Humboldt Bay, and to develop a plan to deal with it. He told the Council that there were over seventy miles of artificial shoreline in the area, and most of it was already badly eroded. He cited an example from a neighboring town, which lost several levies, and the costs which were incurred to repair the structures. The Council voted to write a letter of acceptance to the Coastal Commission. It was a very generous offer, to fund the studies that are needed. But the Council added wording to the effect that climate change was only hypothetical. Also, that anyone owning land in the areas affected would be part of the decision-making process. Several members of the Council don't like the Coastal Commission very much. They impose an additional set of building codes over any development in the coastal zone, for one thing.

Humboldt Bay used to be deep enough for ships to land in its farthest reaches, from Arcata in the north, to Southport in the South Bay. But extensive logging over the entire region caused silt to collect over the entire basin, so that today, at low tide, extensive areas of the Bay become mudflats. At the time, a canal which was built to float logs from the nearby Mad River into the Bay was blamed for the siltation. This has been shown to be untrue. In the 1950s, local business men wanted to reclaim land from the bay. Numerous areas were diked and filled in. The airport close to Eureka was one of the first of these areas. Once an impassible swampy area, a small tidy airport appeared, and a business park. What was lost was a huge wetland area, the habitat for millions of birds. There weren't that many birds anymore, it seemed. Hunters had been very adept at reducing their numbers from the flocks which once blackened the skies.

A local college, now Humboldt State University, took action in preventing the loss of the wetlands. They pointed out that though the mudflats weren't very attractive, the mud was full of small arachnids and crustaceans, important food sources to migrating birds. They made a successful crusade against Pacific Gas and Electric, which had constructed a nuclear facility on the Bay. The reactor was built in close proximity to a seismic fault. Hot water from the power generation facility was destroying aquatic life in the Bay. Another large factory, built on the narrow strip of land between the Bay and the Pacific, called the Spit, for many years waged war with environmentalists at the college. They dumped their waste directly into the Bay, using the tides like a toilet, to wash the pollutants out to sea. Later on, they installed a pipe out into the ocean, which wasn't much of an improvement.

One of the more interesting projects of the University was to design a wastewater treatment system which used no chemicals to treat all of the sewage from the City of Arcata. They constructed a series of artificial ponds, planted with aquatic plants, and a haven for wildlife. This solved Arcata's problem with sewage disposal, since the town was situated in a location where it would be impossible to get rid of the municipal waste anywhere else but the Bay. Ironically, the State of California still requires them to add chlorine to the water before it is released into the Bay. At least, they don't need to use as much of this chemical.

But back to the Wiyots, and to Indian Island. Duluwat, the island, was the site of Tuluwat, a small village which was used by the Wiyot for fishing, and once a year, it was the site of the World Renewal Ceremony. This ceremony, which is also celebrated by several other local Native American groups, usually takes seven or more days, and is intended to "heal the World" from the damage done by human beings. The California Indians lived close to nature, but by no means were they simply living off the land. They knew that everything they did had an effect on the landscape. For example, if there was a plant they needed for eating or basketry, they didn't just go out and find it. They might burn the grass in a meadow, to increase the numbers of those plants in one particular area. If they needed strips of bark, they found trees which allowed them to strip the bark vertically, without killing the tree. The Bay was the most important source of food to them. Full of fish, mussels, and avian creatures, the Bay represented the source of everything that they needed to survive. Such a ceremony could even have had a very practical purpose. If one kind of fish was becoming scarce, they might agree not to take these fish in the coming year, for example.

In 1860, the town of Eureka was just a few hundred yards across the water to Duluwat. For a while, the citizens of Eureka tolerated the occasional nightlong activities on the island. Much of the Wiyot tribe still lived on what is now on the Eureka side of the channel. A friend of the writer, an architect, recounted to me his outrage when the Eureka midden, a huge hill next to the Bay on the Eureka side, was leveled to make a pasture to grow alfalfa. The owner of the land, in a cynical gesture, left a tiny hill in the middle of the plot untouched, but the damage was done. What transpired for the Wiyot at the time of this World Healing Ceremony, was a series of events which almost led to the complete eradication of the entire tribe.

A group of farmers, who were homesteading near the Eel River, south of Eureka, were angry because some of their cattle were being killed, presumably for food, by Native Americans. This was an understandable situation, because the whites did a lot of hunting, and had reduced the food supply of Indians living inland. These were not Wiyot Indians, but another tribe, the Nongatl. It is not known for sure why the vigilantes decided to attack the Wiyot, since the vigilantes were mostly from Hydesville, miles inland from Eureka. However, the Wiyots were the tribe that lived in the closest proximity to white people. They lived on the bay itself, and were highly visible. The ranchers formed a vigilante group, and carefully planned a strike.

On February 26, 1860, about one hundred Wiyot men, women and children were massacred during the World Renewal Ceremony. Many of the other villages of the Wiyot were attacked on the same night, or the following days. There were few survivors. All of the people killed on Duluwat were older men, women and children. Other males were out obtaining food and supplies while the others slept. A local journalist, now famous, Brett Harte, described the event in a local newspaper as an atrocity and an act of cowardice. He was asked to leave town shortly after that. In San Francisco, he allowed this information to reach the ears of the entire world. Otherwise, it would be an even more incomprehensible event than it was. Just why, we ask now, do you want to attack people for no other reason than trying to heal the planet?

In the years following this event, a stockade was built in Eureka, Fort Humboldt, which served as a base for a war with all the local tribes. Native Americans were frequently detained, and many died there. Others were relocated to distant areas. The Wiyot, a most peaceable group, though few in numbers, tried to return to their villages, but were denied. They even purchased some land in several locations, so that they could own land like white men did. But the Bay and the way of life that was central to their existence was lost to them.

In recent years, the Wiyot tribe was reorganized, and made a successful petition to be a federally recognized Native American tribe, even though not a single full blood Wiyot Indian survives. The last surviving speaker of the Wiyot language, Della Prince, died in 1962. They organize their activities around the recovery of the culture and language of their ancestors. They are not interested in the casino business. What they want to do, is to resume the World Healing Ceremony, once a year, for all eternity.

Link: Northcoast Journal "The Return of Indian Island" your social media marketing partner
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