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Wiyot Tribe Responds to "Murder in Arcata" 

The Wiyot Tribe has been particularly blessed to work with a large number of extraordinary professional historians, archaeologists and other cultural resource professionals who live and work in Wiyot country.

It is well known that the relationship between the Wiyot Tribe and the surrounding communities that have emerged over the past 165 years has rarely been a positive one. However, this is not the time to revisit the genocide most typified by the coordinated set of mass murders that took place on Feb. 24, 1860 — today known as the Indian Island Massacre. Instead, a new narrative is emerging. The Tribe enjoys positive relations with many of the communities in Wiyot country. This can be seen in the return of part of Indian Island to the tribe in 2004, and the ongoing work between the city of Eureka and the tribe to bring the island home to the Wiyot Tribe. It is also seen in smaller projects and ongoing cooperation with local municipalities, agencies and nonprofits.

While we still have much work to do, the genuine partnerships that have been forged are rare examples of how tribes and communities can begin to overcome the historical trauma associated with Anglo-American settlement. At the forefront of this effort, local historians and cultural resource specialists have worked with the Wiyot Tribe to take an unflinching look at what happened in a way that incorporates a tribal perspective and oral traditions.

History matters. Our understandings of the founding fathers, Civil War and American expansion westward have a major impact on our understanding of current events and major national discussions. This is also true for local history. By incorporating tribal perspectives, most local history experts have both improved the quality of their professional work, and created a context for the hard work of improving relations carried on by both the Wiyot and other communities.

Unfortunately, the article "Murder in Arcata" (Oct. 8) by Lynette Mullen failed to incorporate any Wiyot perspective. Indeed, it failed to even mention the Wiyot Tribe, never mind incorporate a tribal perspective. In an email to the tribe, Mullen explained that she felt that it is possible that the murder victim in question might have been trafficked into the area in the 1850s, which is why she didn't identify her as Wiyot.

That she was trafficked may or may not be true. The tribe is not aware of any evidence for this, and without any references, it is impossible for us to comment on whatever evidence was used in writing the article. However, even if it is true, it still does not justify washing the Wiyot name from the events in question.

For starters, the article clearly discusses the "natives" around Humboldt Bay. There were no other tribes with ancestral territory around the bay except for the Wiyot. While individuals from other tribes might have moved into the area, Humboldt Bay was, and still is, Wiyot country. The events that happened around Humboldt Bay during those times were targeted at the Wiyot people.

While the Wiyot Tribe cannot fully deny the assertion that the victim of the murder was trafficked from the outside, we do not accept that explanation either. However, if it is true, her presence on the island during the World Renewal Ceremony suggests that she had incorporated herself into the local Wiyot community. This should not be a surprise. Wiyot culture simply does not allow for turning people out into the cold. An Indian woman trafficked into the area would have found comfort, friendship and equality among the Wiyot people that she would not have found elsewhere. In many ways, her presence on the island on the night of the massacre implies that, whatever her individual story, she was a Wiyot.

Throughout the United States, Indian nations have an important story to tell. In many ways it is a common story, but by eliminating the individual tribes and cultures from the historical narrative we condemn what happened to the past. While no Indian nation escaped the specter of genocide, each faced it in its own way. Of course, individual stories must be told as well. But denying the cultural context does a disservice to the individual and the affected communities.

The Indian Nations of Northern California have, against amazing odds, preserved cultures and life ways that are vibrant and distinct. It is unfortunate that the article "Murder in Arcata" did not reflect this understanding. By simply contacting and working with the tribe, such a difficulty could have been avoided. While cultural preservation remains a struggle, the hard work of the Wiyot Tribe has been supported by professionals who understand the importance of Wiyot culture both as part of the history and the future of this amazing place.

Thomas Torma is the tribal historic preservation officer (THPO) and cultural director for the Wiyot Tribe.

Have something you want to get off your chest? Think you can help guide and inform public discourse? Then the North Coast Journal wants to hear from you. Contact the Journal at editor@northcoastjournal.com to pitch your column ideas.


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Thomas Torma

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