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Sunshine, Symbols and Remembrance 

The sun came out Monday and everybody seemed drunk on it. Down in town, in Arcata, a man in one backyard had pulled off his shirt to bare his muscled pale arms to the warmth. A woman in her garden was in a tank top. Everyone dangled jackets and sweaters under their arms as they walked.

Up on the hill, at Humboldt State, rhododendrons and camelias competed over who had the most gaudy new blossoms. Students collected in chattering groups, or hid out in solitary peace in secluded courtyards. On the quad, the HSU Vine Club was giving out free food, as it does every Monday. A young woman walked up, grabbed a banana, and said "Thank you -- I was feeling so down today." And everywhere were small plastic-encased signs staked into the grass -- they were hard to read through the dew collected on their surface. But crouching down to wipe one clean, you could read it: "What if ... this was the re-decorating scheme of your favorite professor" above a picture of a nifty office, followed by "Your visions. Your school. Your choice. Add a unit. Be heard." The sign explained that "Every unit on your schedule means money for our HSU budget."

So, the crisis continued, despite the temporary sunshine, free bananas and cookies. HSU needs money. HSU needs students. And current students, in whose brains activism is always at the boiling point, were spurring action. But it was noontime. Time for sun-soaking and rest, or study. Maybe, as you loitered on a bench eating your lunch, you glanced over at one of the Spanish Mission-style kiosks that popped up all over campus last year -- a measure, along with the curved stucco new gates at various entrances to the campus, taken by the administration last year to entice moneyed parents with prospective students in tow. Anything to boost enrollment. Anything, even if it ticks off the student body because the Spanish Mission-style adornments, people fumed, represent oppression of native tribes. Still, maybe your eyes focused, your head tilted, you got up and wandered over to read the panel.

But probably you didn't. One guy was actually sitting by one of those kiosks, eating his lunch. "Did you read this?" another person asked him, pointing at the interpretative panel in the kiosk. This one was about Chinook salmon. He said, "No." "Do you think anyone does?" "No. I mean, we're all just walking by on our way to classes."

It seemed true. Everywhere, the people streamed past, unaware. Past the kiosk with the panel on Humboldt Bay, past the one on the Yurok Tribe, the one on the dunes, the one on the Wiyot. If they'd stopped to read them, they'd have learned something useful. Like, for instance, about how HSU was built on traditional Wiyot territory, and how, by the way, back in 1860 some Eureka settlers massacred a hundred or so Wiyot people as they rested on Indian Island after their days-long world-renewal ceremony. It's the sort of fact a university student absorbs and develops a passion for.

Over at the bus stop behind the library, a dozen students waited for their ride. Here was another kiosk. "Has anyone here read this?" someone asked. One woman laughed and looked amazed, shaking her head. A few people shrugged, looked away. One guy said, "No, I don't think anyone has."

This guy, Ed Asturias, isn't fond of the kiosks. "My friend calls this the Taco Bell stand," he said. "He thinks I should be for it, because it's Spanish [like his last name]. I don't like the kiosks at all. Nobody reads them. I've heard nothing but negative talk about them." It isn't the subject matter that people dislike. "The whole pillar thing takes away from what you're supposed to be reading. It's a distraction." Maybe if they'd built something you could lean on and read, he said, maybe that would've worked better.

It's an odd conundrum. A few years back, graduate student Karen Nelson and some cohorts tried to get the administration to put up a rock with a plaque telling about the Wiyot massacre. They wanted to put it next to the Preston rock plaque, which is hidden in a rather dark corner of the campus and honors the man who donated the land to start the original campus. Nelson had talked with Wiyot Tribal Chair Cheryl Seidner, who works at HSU, about it, and Seidner had said that if Preston got a rock, then the Wiyot should have a rock, too. That never happened. But in the meantime, the kiosk scheme emerged, with the panels --which will rotate with other ones -- on local features and history. Perhaps Nelson's efforts paid off, somewhat, although she said recently she was taken by surprise when she saw the kiosks. Seidner, who actually helped the authors of the panels with the Wiyot one, said a few days ago that she's fine with the new panels, although she hasn't actually seen them all yet. And she isn't pressing for a permanent rock marker anymore, not now, not with "the crisis we're going through as a university."

Perhaps it's a bit odd that the Wiyot panel, in particular, is couched in what some view as a symbol of a white oppressor. On the other hand -- setting aside the problem that nobody's stopping at those kiosks -- you could look at it as a coming together, a healing perhaps. It's sort of like the students taking some of the budget crisis burden upon themselves. And it's a lot like the candlelight vigil the Wiyot have held on Woodley Island every year since 1992, on the last Saturday in February, to remember the Wiyot people massacred on Indian Island. Everybody goes, Indian and non-Indian, and the purpose is to remember, and to heal the community, says Seidner.

This year's vigil is this coming Saturday, Feb. 24, 6-8 p.m.. Bring a candle. Rain or shine.

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About The Author

Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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