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February 23, 2006

9 Questions for Cheryl Seidner


photo of Cheryl SeidnerTribal Chairwoman Cheryl Seidner [right] spoke with the Journal in advance of this weekend's Indian Island Candelight Vigil, an annual event to honor the Wiyot people who were murdered by white settlers in what is known as the Massacre of 1860. Somewhere between 60 and 200 people, mainly women and children, were killed on Indian Island on the last Saturday in February that year. The Wiyot men were away from the island, gathering supplies at the end of their weeklong dance to bring balance to the world. Seidner, 55, and other tribal and religious leaders established the vigil to promote healing in the community. The annual event takes place at the west end of Woodley Island on Saturday, Feb. 25, from 6-8 p.m.

1. How did the vigil start? When did it start?

It was 1992. I can remember that because Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. And in 1992 they were going to bring in two, or one, of the replicas of his three ships to Humboldt Bay, around Columbus Day, and it just did not bode well with me. We are celebrating the "founder" of America. Well, we weren't lost. We were always here. Even when I was a little kid, in 1960 I was in fourth grade and my teacher, a wonderful lady, she was teaching on that unit and she said, "Who discovered America?" And all these little hands flew up in the air and they said, "Christopher Columbus." And my little brown arm goes up in the air -- "The Wiyots were already here!" [Laughs.] So I became a little outspoken advocate; I was outspoken ever since I can remember.

So we had been talking about what we were going to do and somebody called a meeting. The Maritime Museum was involved, a professor on campus was involved, I was involved, someone from the tribe was involved, the Historical Society was involved. We came together and we started talking about putting up a kiosk, talking about the island and doing all these different things, but we couldn't raise the money to do it. Then we got to the stalemate of: Someone was going to write the history [of Indian Island and the Wiyot] and they weren't going to allow anyone to edit it.

2. Who are they? Who was going to write the history?

That's not important. Someone was going to write the history and they weren't going to let anyone edit it. We felt very uncomfortable about not being able to look at it before you plop [a plaque] on there. So it just stopped in the water and we couldn't raise the money for the kiosk. But we said we've got to do something. Then a pastor from the First Congregational Church in Eureka, the president of the Historical Society, myself and another tribal member got together. We said, "We need a healing." Since this Massacre of 1860 there has been a tremendous chasm between two worlds and it's not getting any closer, the chasm is not narrowing enough. The other thing we realized is that no one had probably given a thought to all the people that died there that day. And so we wanted to remember them, though we may never know their names. So with those two premises we decided to put a candlelight vigil together.

Each year it grows, sometimes it has subsided. Last year we had well over 200 people show up. We started out at about 75 people the first time. We've had people come and share poems, share feelings, share songs, share prayers and we even had a Jewish person come in her shawl and do a prayer in Hebrew. It's not exclusive. Even in the 1860s dance, it was for all people. White people were here, the tikwo', and they were included if they wanted to come. You can't come as a spectator -- you must come as a participant. And I put that same thing into it today; even though it may not be a dance, you have to come with a good heart. If you are angry with someone, don't come. But come if you're hurting and you need healing.

3. You are the descendent of a baby who survived the massacre. What do you know about him?

His father was the one who put on the dances on the island. His father was named Captain Jim -- they [the white settlers] didn't know how to pronounce his name, so they called him Captain Jim since he was a leader. That's how my mother got her last name, James.

When they put on the world renewal dance the men never stayed on the island, they went back to the villages and would bring back the next day of supplies. The women and children and the elders stayed on the island with a couple of young men. It wasn't really for protection but just a watchful eye. And the reason why we know all of this information is because Captain Jim was one of the men who came back with the supplies and saw all the devastation. He lost his family except for his son. Jerry, the baby, grew up and he passed away in the 1940s, I think, and he was a pretty renowned individual, at least in my family he is pretty doggone renowned.

4. Who told you about what happened on the island?

My mom and dad. They were exceptional people. They have been gone almost 30 and 40 years of my life. My dad was killed when I was 16 and my mother died when I was 26. But you know, I go back to them at any decision I ever make. I go back and say, what would mom and dad do? They were, as I say, exceptional people. They told me. I knew about this before I even went to elementary school. They said, "Now, that happened in 1860. That's a long time ago and you need to remember it. Don't forget it. But don't beat people up for it because it's not them that did it." I never forgot it.

5. When you're at the vigil, what are you thinking about? How are you feeling?

I do a lot of praying. I start out the day with a prayer, as I do every day ... I try to do every day. Sorry, God. Usually that whole day is blank so I don't have to worry about anything. I get there about 4 p.m., walk the site, say a prayer, try to get in the frame of mind that we are trying to heal a society that may not want to heal.

6. The World Renewal Dance the Wiyot were doing in 1860 was never completed, and even now it has not been completed. Finishing the dance is a goal of the Wiyot. What has to happen first?

The island has to be cleaned up. We need to put a dance house on the island, because our dances are in the wintertime. We have to take off the debris from the 1.5 acres that we bought [from the city of Eureka] and we have to make it so it's safe for people to walk around, we have to make it so people can't come in and loot [gravesites]. We're slowly doing that but it takes time and it takes money.

7. What do you think of development of the Eureka waterfront, particularly the Balloon Track? Do the Wiyot have a voice, or a say in the development there?

The state of California has given us the right to be a part of the decisions, and for right now we're just looking into it.

8. Any particular feelings?

No. What is it they say? No comment. [Laughs.] I just noticed your jacket. I like it.

9. Thanks. It's really warm. Anything else about the vigil that you'd like to mention?

Dress for rain or shine, dress warmly, bring a candle. Be there willing to put your best foot forward.


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