California to return ownership of contested island back to native tribe

About Time

California to return ownership of contested island back to native tribe

(Ellin Beltz/Wikimedia Commons)

The North Coast Journal reported that Indian Island, the largest island in Northern California‘s Humboldt Bay, will be returned today to the native Wiyot tribe that once owned it 160 years ago. Shortly after a unanimous vote made last week by the Eureka City councilmembers, Wiyot Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez and Eureka Mayor Susan Seaman signed a deed that formally transferred ownership of the 200-acre property.  

“[The agreement is] a really good example of resilience,” tribal administrator Michelle Vassel told the New York Times, “because Wiyot people never gave up the dream…It’s a really good story about healing and about the coming together of a community.”

Also known as Duluwat Island, the territory represents sacred land for the 600 remaining members of the Wiyot tribe, whose ancestors were decimated by settlers in the Wiyot massacre on February 26, 1860.

The news comes after several decades of many smaller land acquisitions, beginning with the first request made by the tribe to the city of Eureka in 1970. In 2000, the tribe raised $106,000 to purchase 1.5 acres of the island, after which the city provided an additional 40 acres. Because the island is heavily contaminated by a century of livestock grazing and its proximity to a former shipyard, the Wiyot tribe and members of the local community have since come together to clean up the land, including the restoration of a millennium-old mound containing ancient burial sites.

In 2014, the site was deemed adequate for ceremonial practices by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The tribe has since also begun attempting to revive the language and cultural practices that originated on the site prior to the 1860 massacre.

Bob Anderson, the director of the Native American Law Century at the University of Washington School of Law, commented on the recently-made deal by adding that “it sets an important precedent for other communities that might be thinking about doing this.” Now that the sacred piece of land is given back to the tribe, its members are planning to grow native plants and conduct annual ceremonies on the site, the first of which is scheduled for next March.