After losing much of their ancestry, the Wiyots are learning their traditions in preparation for a renewal ceremony
EUREKA, Calif. — When a few canoes carrying a group of Wiyot tribal members to Indian Island cross the choppy waters of Humboldt Bay in March, it will not look as if anything particularly special is happening.
The nondescript, flat, marshy 275-acre island sits beneath a bridge upon which traffic whizzes by on busy Route 255. But what will take place will be remarkable: 153 years after Indian Island was the site of a brutal massacre of the Wiyot, it will bear witness to a ceremony of rebirth and testament of survival for a people brought to the brink of extinction.
For three days, beginning March 28, the Wiyot plan to perform a world renewal ceremony on the island. It will be the first time since the massacre that the ceremony — which once stood at the center of the tribe’s cultural life — has been performed, healing a gap of more than a century and a half.
For the tribe’s current members, it’s especially meaningful that the ceremony will take place on the very land where so many of their ancestors were killed.
“We need to complete the ceremony of 1860 for the ones who were lost,” said Ted Hernandez, chairman of the 645-member tribe.
The ceremony will act as a marker on a long and unlikely journey of survival. It is not easy to recover from a massacre, and that year the endured one of the worst ethnic slaughters in U.S. history as they danced and sang at a world renewal ceremony on Indian Island.
A posse of white settlers sneaked through the darkness one night in 1860 and murdered more than 50 Native American women and children, mostly with axes and hatchets.
“Amidst the wailing of mutilated infants,” The San Francisco Bulletin wrote at the time, “the savage blows are given, cutting through bone and brain.”
Nearby settlers carried out two more massacres that night, killing an additional 90 Indians, most of them Wiyot, and for more than a century it seemed the Wiyot were a destroyed people.
The tribe was at first shunted into a local Army fort known to the Wiyot as “jouwuchguri,” which translates as “lying down with your knees drawn up.” The Wiyot were forbidden to use their own language. The last fluent speakers eventually died off, and in 1958 the U.S. government, intent on mainstreaming Native Americans, stripped the Wiyot of their tribal status. Despair set in, along with alcoholism and drug abuse.
But slowly, the Wiyot began to recover. The Wiyot Nation, which finally regained tribal status in 1990, began the slow process of returning to Indian Island.
It never looked as though it would be an easy task.