More than 200 acres of Indian Island was given back to the Wiyot Tribe on Tuesday. The Eureka City Council voted unanimously to return this area to tribal jurisdiction. The area was what city officials called a ‘surplus property’.
For Wiyot Tribal Chairman Ted Hernandez and many tribal members who filled the council chambers during Tuesday night's Eureka City Council meeting, the area is not surplus, but instead a sacred site. It’s where tribal ancestors are buried and the location where Wiyot people celebrate and perform the World Renewal Ceremony.
“I’m happy. Our ancestors are going to be able to rest now and everything that happened in the past will start healing and we’ll move forward,” Hernandez said after the council voted in favor of the Wiyot Tribe.
The chairman wants the community to heal from the 1860 massacre on Indian Island, where white settlers killed hundreds of native people. That year the World Renewal Ceremonies stopped and would not start up again until 2014, which was more than a hundred years later. In 2015, Eureka started to have more discussions on how to transfer the land to the Wiyot Tribe. More than a decade before those conversations, in 2000, the Wiyot Tribe raised money to purchase 1.5 acres of the island’s southeastern shore.
Concerns on possible future development and major access to Indian Island arose in the council, but Eureka City Planner Rob Holmlund said once the transfer is complete, that those aspects will be controlled by the owners of the property--in this case the Wiyot Tribe. That ownership is pending a 60 day period where others are allowed to express interest in buying the property. So far, according to Holmlund, no agencies that city officials have contacted want to purchase the land.
"The tribe has indicated an interest in doing a range of cultural activities on the island that are completely compatible with natural resources' zone, as well as interest in doing a dance pit-sweat lodge thing. So those are very minor and not really structures and also appropriate," Holmlund said. "If they elected to build something then it would be their property. If they had uplands and get all the permits then I'd recommend that council support that kind of thing."
Wiyot Tribal member Linda Lang spoke to the council about the development and access concerns and said they did not need to worry about the tribe disrupting the land.
"I want you to know that our tribe is doing its best to join with you to make peace finally come. It is up to you now. We cannot offer anymore than our words that we are not going to destroy this land. This was our land. Why would we build a motel there? Why would we put a casino there?" she said and compared Indian Island to a church or synagogue. "Use your heads. This is sacred. This is not a piece of extra land. To us it is much, much more."
The land, which is aproximately 202 acres, is zoned under natural resources and is heavily vegetated, which means any sort of development would have obstacles. Holmlund, however, said if the tribe found a way to develop that he doesn't think the city should present more obstacles. Instead he said the city should respect the tribe and allow them to make their own decisions regarding the property.
According to Hernandez, the large efforts to return Indian Island to the Wiyot people was a result of the entire community and city officials, working together and supporting native rights.
“I think this community has grown strongly in support for the tribe and for the Wiyot people. And to see them coming together and uniting everyone for this, it’s amazing," Hernandez said.
After voting to return the land to the tribe, Eureka City Council member Natalie Arroyo further stated she was sorry the process had taken so long to complete.
"Thank you so much for bearing with us and for being here today," Arroyo said. "I do hope that we set a precedent that other people can follow in this nation."
Indian Island is in Humboldt Bay, between Woodley Island and the Samoa Peninsula. More information on the history of the site can be found here. This means Eureka willbe the first city in the United States to return sacred land to indigenous people without provocation of the Judiciary System.