“The egrets, in graceful flight, are the spirits of those who were massacred so long ago… Loathe to give up their island, they hover near, keeping vigil while the island fulfills its time of mourning.”
Black crown herons stud the sky. Their shadowed outlines breaking through the persistent tent of fog—they fly only to inevitably swing down and join the white egrets lurking in the limbs of dense leafy cypresses. Is it August or January? On this floating marsh of land, months flush forward with minimal variation from the other. The air is always damp: a cold chill weeps into the tidal land and cling to the sticky leafs of coyote brush. Rain flushes down from the low sky, summing up to an annual average totaling above thirty inches. A flock of egrets sweep out of the mob of green cypress trees. They move swift, up and away from Duluwat Island, only a shade whiter than the day’s mist. The egrets would be easy to miss if I hadn’t originally seen them against the dense colors of the rookery—a rookery filled with trees once frequently used for the construction of coffins by the Greeks and Romans. It is fitting that the egrets find their home in the dying cypresses (Evans), as there are many who believe that the white egrets are the spirits of those who were butchered on Duluwat Island on February 25 1860 (Betzholtz 16). They roam Humboldt Bay in a serene glide everyday, never failing to return to their island, never failing to remind us of the brutality that occurred on the marshy land over a 152 years ago.
For thousands of years, the Wiyot Tribe honored Duluwat Island (more publically known as Indian Island, or even Gunther Island, to the Humboldt community—but in honor to the Wiyot language, I’ll be using its original name). It was the center of their world—a place of great ceremony and sacredness. Not only was the island home to the indigenous people, it was also one of three locations for the annual World Renewal Ceremony, a jump dance lasting seven to ten days. The Wiyots considered the ceremony as a sort of New Years celebration (Raphael and House 169): a time to start fresh, remember those who were lost in the massive 1700 earthquake, to seek balance and blessings, and to prevent another similar catastrophic event from happening (Green 8). The World Renewal Ceremony welcomed all to its festivities—white settlers, other tribes, family and friends, everyone was invited to the celebration. Tragically, A handful of vengeful Eureka Eel River Ranchers would take this welcome too literally and bring bloodshed to the party on February 26, 1860.
In the pitch-dark hours of the new day four to six white settlers rowed through the foggy shadows to Duluwat Island. They didn’t carry firearms, but rather hatchets, clubs, and knifes—silent weapons to ensure that the neighboring folk of Eureka couldn’t hear the destruction. At the time, the tribal men were off the island retrieving supplies for the next day of ceremony; only resting woman and children were present. The attackers did not care. No one was spared. The exact amount of people murdered during the Duluwat Island massacre is unknown, though it has been estimated to range anywhere from 30 to 100. Children and woman were slaughtered in their beds, skulls crushed with axes and stomachs repetitively stabbed. The white settlers showed no mercy and only four to six survived (Raphael and House 169). The heartbreaking irony that the most severe Duluwat Island catastrophe unfolded during the World Renewal Ceremony—an event intended to prevent catastrophes—is impossible to miss. The three massacres of the night unraveled the entire Wiyot community, butchering them from the land they so sacredly honored. The Wiyot population dropped to 200 hundred members in just one day (Ketcham, Smith, and Taylor 2) and the surviving members were soon after relocated to a Klamath reservation. They have been fighting to reclaim their island ever since.
The exact motives behind the massacres remain unclear, but assumedly the result of the tension between the white settlers and natives: surely the California “Indian Problem”—the heavy racism that flooded not only the state but the nation—fed into the men’s actions, as well as supposed cattle grazing problems and other minuscule conflicts between the two groups (Green 4-10). It has also been considered that Robert Gunther’s newfound ownership of Duluwat Island may have been a component (Doran and McVicar). For either shortly after or before the bloody event—the exact dates remain unclear—Gunther purchased the land, but again, whether or not this truly fed the massacre is unclear. Regardless of the man’s involvement with the massacre, Gunther’s physical impact on Duluwat Island is tangible. Along with building a mansion for himself (which eventually, mysteriously burnt down) Gunther built dikes and channels to house dairy cattle, a shingle mill, and a boat yard. Neither the boat yard nor the shingle mill are in production today, but the negative impacts are nonetheless apparent in the changes to the tidal change and island erosion.
Over the last few decades, the Wiyot Tribe has worked diligently to gain back their beloved island, and have done so with a slow yet steady degree of success. The Wiyot Sacred Site Fund was established to purchase the land as it becomes available and also to reignite the dimmed culture of their history. One shining milestone of this endeavor was on May 18, 2004, when the Eureka City Council returned 60 acres of the northeastern tip back to the Wiyot Tribe (Wiyot Tribe). In addition, the California Conservation Corps group has been assisting the Wiyot people with erosion control and the clean up of hazardous materials since that day (Ketcham, Smith, and Taylor 2). While there are still several private property owners of the island remaining, it is the hope of many that Duluwat Island will eventually be returned and revitalized to its original glory.
In 1992, Former Wiyot Tribal Chairwoman Cheryl Seidner worked with several community members to put up a plaque on the neighboring Woodley Island in recognition of Duluwat Island and to create the now annual candlelight vigil held on the last Saturday of every February. The vigil is to remember and heal. “You have to come with a good heart,” Seidner explained to North Coast Journal reporter Helen Sanderson. “If you are angry with someone, don’t come. But come if you’re hurting and need healing” (Sanderson). I had the honor of attending the 2011 candlelight vigil and was struck by the reverence of the community: not only did the Wiyots and people from other tribes come to remember and heal, but white city folk—professionals and college-aged kids—were in attendance. The group that stood around the fire pit and looked across the bay to Duluwat Island was small, but the sacredness was strong. It became clear to me with such intention of open hearts, the mending of Duluwat Island’s is tangible.
Generally speaking, with the return of their land from the Eureka City Council and the community’s support in clean up, the Wiyot Tribe has been rightfully blessed with Humboldt County’s modern respect and understanding. 2004 Mayor Peter LaVallee expressed that “the massacre was a dark time in Eureka’s history…” (Cejnar). He claimed it necessary for the community as a whole to recognize what occurred on the island, and that “the [Eurekas’s] action of returning the tribe’s land was the start of recognizing the indigenous people who lived on Humboldt Bay before the settlers came” (Cejnar). Once the cleanup process is complete (which has aforementioned the Wiyot’s are searching for additional funding), there are plans to build a traditional house and dance pit, as well as a trail. Wiyot Tribal Chairman Ted Hernadez emphasized the hope that people can walk though their land and learn the history that, until recently, has remained hidden in the past’s fog.
It’s been over a year since I stood on Woodley Island and looked out through the gentle rain to Duluwat Island, but the memory is still bright. The solemn egrets swept from the darkening sky and circled around the bay, I remember hearing in the Pacific waves: they are going home. While Wiyot tribal representatives are currently “searching for additional funding to complete the environmental cleanup” (Cejnar), there is regardless great hope. It’s been 152 years since the World Renewal Ceremony was last completed, but with the support from the same city that butchered them from the center of their world, it shouldn’t be too long until the Wiyots can dance on Duluwat Island again and restore balance—it shouldn’t be long until, like the egrets, the Wiyots can finally return home and complete their dance.
–Heather Ezell, November 2012
Betzholtz, Peggy Johnson. Discernment and Healing: Exploring the Possibilities of Spiritual Healing of a Corporate Entity. Diss. San Francisco Theology Seminary, 1992. Print.
Cejnar, Jessica. “Indian Island Cleanup Nearly Finished; Wiyot Tribe Searching for Additional Project Funding.” The Eureka Times Standard. Times-Standard, 13 June 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2012.
Evans, Barry. “The Egrets of Indian Island.” North Coast Journal | Humboldt County. North Coast Journal, 26 May 2011. Web. 04 Nov. 2012.
Green, Rex D. Indian Island: A Decade of Events Leading to Genocide and Removal of the Wiyots, 1850-1860. A senior seminar paper, Humboldt State University. 2002. Print.
Ketcham, Tamara, Joshua Smith, and Jennifer Taylor. “Completing the Dance: the Wiyot Quest to Reclaim Indian Island.” Humboldt Interpreter. Spring 2005. 2-6. PDF.
Raphael, Ray, and Freeman House. Two Peoples, One Place. Vol. 1. Eureka, CA: Humboldt County Historical Society for the Writing Humboldt History Project, 2007. Print.
Sanderson, Helen. “9 Questions for Cheryl Seidner.” The North Coast Journal. The North Coast Journal. 23 Feb. 2006. Web. 30 Oct. 2011.
Wiyot Tribe. Jan. 2011. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.