This is the American massacre you were never taught about in school. This is the genocide that no one was ever held accountable for. Search a “This Day in History” site and you will not find any mention of the original Sunday Bloody Sunday.
On Sunday, February 26th, 1860, the Wiyot tribe of northern California was resting after several days of participating in its week-long World Renewal Ceremony. The ceremony was held on what’s commonly known as Indian Island, or Duluwat to the Wiyot, a small, marshy island near Eureka.
Duluwat was home to two villages, Tuluwat (Toulouwat) and Etpidolh (Etpidalh Watpuroulh). Tuluwat was the site of the annual ceremony. On that Sunday in 1860, knowing that the men were away, six white men crawled ashore with axes, knives, and clubs– quiet weapons that would not alert anyone else to the mass murder they had planned. These were the weapons of cowards who had their eye on that real estate, who blamed the Wiyot and other tribes of stealing their cattle.
These men viciously murdered children, women, and elders in a surprise attack that conveniently coincided with other area massacres that day. Very few survived this slaughter on Duluwat and the incident was nearly swept under the rug. A 2010 article in the North Coast Journal of Politics, People, and Art puts faces on the survivors and dissects the motives. This is the best piece I’ve read on the topic. It tells of the baby found in his murdered mother’s arms, the women who bravely saved three children to stumble upon seven others, the perseverance and forgiveness of the survivors. Depending on the account, 80 to 200 defenseless people were savagely killed.
That day was a turning point for the native peoples of northern California. While there had already been plans and pressure to move the Wiyot off Duluwat, February 26th, 1860 was the day the Wiyot lost the island that their tribe had frequented for a thousand years or more. It seems to have been turned into a dairy farm– no surprise given the real estate designs of some local settlers. Some time later it became a shipyard. It also became a heavily contaminated dumping ground that the Wiyots have spent at least two decades cleaning up.
The EPA has a fascinating document about the efforts to remove all manner of industrial waste and garbage from the site. It includes bits of the tribe’s and Tuluwat’s history. The Wiyots have been slowly buying back the land, an island that literally holds the blood and bones of their ancestors. It has been a labor of love.
Did I say their ancestors? From elementary through high school I was teased about my fair skin. One middle school classmate’s words about “needing to get some sun” are forever scrawled in my yearbook. Kids were cruel about many things but bashing on someone’s genetically-determined skin tone hit a nerve, especially because they were making assumptions about my forebears. Growing up I knew that we grandkids were a small part Native American.
I have never understood the pressure to change one’s skin tone as if God screwed up by making us too dark or too light. I find it odd that so many here in rainy Seattle flock to tanning beds as if we’re supposed to look like we’re in Florida. I love my skin, but we have this Hollywood or Bollywood-fueled concept that all women should move towards some sort of bronzed or golden epidermal ideal somewhere in the middle of the skin spectrum. Ladies, you are beautiful exactly as God made you. We are meant to shine as all colors of the rainbow.
Our grandpa was a tall, dark, and handsome engineer whose mother was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian. His beautiful mother had a nickname for his father referencing the tribe she thought he resembled. But Great-Grandpa was an orphan, his origins shrouded in mystery. We knew bits and pieces, some names, general geographic locations– a scattered and unreliable road map to the past.
I’ve spent a lifetime searching for his people, hitting brick wall after brick wall. We knew he was from northern California. We learned how his father died. A few years ago a wonderful researcher at the Washington State Archives stepped into help and we learned the startling truth of what happened to him and his brother after they lost their parents. We know nothing about their sister. For him to have become the man he was after what he suffered is a testament to his fighting spirit and kind heart.
Thanks to the Archives we found a connection to the Wiyot tribe. There is a genetic link to a common ancestor and documentation signed by that ancestor although some tribal members dispute the connection. Nevertheless, I will continue my research to fill in the gaps in our family’s story. As I try to connect the dots, I wonder if my great-grandfather and his siblings weren’t taken in by either side of the family because they were too light or too dark. I am certain there are still secrets and surprises to be found and healing that needs to happen.
The first time I read the story of the genocide at Duluwat, I was profoundly shaken. I wasn’t reading a high school textbook about people I’d never met in the Midwest. This wasn’t one of the mass murders I’d written about for my M.A. This happened to my family. Being an American, I come from many peoples and some of those peoples have enslaved and killed each other throughout the centuries. But this was more recent, more local, on American soil, and all of the suspects got away with it.
I’m not an advocate of reparations and I believe in moving forward. But somehow an ancient island, a very specific and sacred place, being taken by mass murder at a sacred time was an unconscionable cliffhanger. It was like when a TV show ends without telling you what happened to any of the major characters– except hellishly worse. It invoked a particular feeling that I mentioned in my 2013 blog post When You Know It’s Murder:
Accepting some of these circumstances as “solved” though—it hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps we who question the “truth” are who God intends to bring justice through. There are times when I’m thinking through some of these cases and that old familiar translucent twilight sidles up next to me. In that particular kind of silence I’m reminded that something still isn’t right, and the truth might have yet to be found. It’s like a door hasn’t closed yet, or a window latch has come undone in a forgotten room and a breeze is rustling old, worn curtains that should have been taken down 30 years ago.
There is no individual alive who can truly apologize for what happened on Duluwat. The descendants of the suspects are not responsible and have no obligation to be involved. The City of Eureka did issue a formal apology in recent years, and it was fitting for a government agency to finally recognize the tragedy.
Today the apology went a step further. At 10 A.M. this morning, the City of Eureka and the Wiyot tribe held a ceremony at which the city council voted to return Duluwat to the Wiyots. It took almost 160 years for the tribe to get this land back. Despite this rare and momentous gesture that rewarded many years of the tribe’s hard work, media coverage is sparse. The British press picked up the story right away, though, with The Guardian declaring “California city returns island taken from native tribe in 1860 massacre.”
It’s a really good example of resilience because Wiyot people never gave up the dream… It’s a really good story about healing and about coming together of community.Michelle Vassel, Tribal Administrator
From a distance, from an unacknowledged seat in the bleachers, I rejoiced with the Wiyot today. I can do this as an American. I can do this as a fellow human being. I can do this as an advocate for and fierce believer in a God of justice. But I also did this for my grandfather. I did this for my great-grandfather who was too young to remember his people when he was torn from them. I cheered for a family I may never know. I rejoiced with a people I’ve spent most of a lifetime looking for– the people who I thought of every time another classmate took a jab at my complexion.
Well done, Wiyot people. Well done.
This simple marker commemorates the massacre.
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2 thoughts on “Wiyot Rising”
Very movingly written; I went to the link and viewed the marker.
Cleaning the marker itself would be a great project!!!!!!
Thanks for sharing a side of your family history that I don’t know of.
Thank you. I’m glad the marker’s there but it seems so small compared to what happened.