The Wiyot people have stewarded the land in and around Humboldt Bay (Wigi) in Northern California, near the present-day city of Eureka, for thousands of years. Before the arrival of settler-colonists, they actively managed their resources. As Wiyot tribal chair Ted Hernandez says, “We understood our role as caretakers. We didn’t ‘own’ the land or the water. We were part of it.”
In the middle of Humboldt Bay lies Tuluwat Island (also known as “Indian Island”), the birthplace for the Wiyot people and the site of a historic shellmound. According to the Wiyot creation story, the people were created on the island. “It’s sacred because that is where we come from,” explains Cheryl Seidner, a former Wiyot tribal chair.
Tuluwat Island is also the site of the annual World Renewal Ceremony, performed by members of the Wiyot, Hupa, Yurok, Karuk, and Chilula tribal nations. The ceremony lasts seven to 10 days and aims to bring the world into balance.
From 1860 until 2014, that ceremony did not occur due to genocide and dispossession. But the Wiyot nation is still here. And, in recent years, a community partnership has emerged involving the Wiyot nation, Cooperation Humboldt (a nonprofit that supports cooperative development), and the broader community of Eureka and Humboldt County that promises a path towards healing. It has not been easy, and there remains considerable work to do, but we believe ours is a story worth sharing.
The Massacre of 1860
California in the mid-nineteenth century was experiencing a “gold rush” that led to a rapid influx of settler-colonists into the state. In 1850, the state’s estimated population was 92,000. By 1860, only 10 years later, it was nearly 380,000. At the same time, the state’s Native American population fell by 80 percent from 150,000 at mid-century to around 30,000 by 1870. This was attempted genocide; there is no tiptoeing around it, as Gavin Newsom, the state’s current governor, has acknowledged.
The Wiyot Nation did not escape this wave of white settler violence. On February 25, 1860, a group of local white men brutally slaughtered over 100 sleeping Wiyot women, children, and elders while the men were away gathering provisions for the Wiyot’s annual renewal ceremony. Other Wiyot villages were also attacked that night, and the carnage continued for a week in a series of coordinated attacks. Some survivors were imprisoned at Fort Humboldt, where over half of them died. Wiyot people were relocated to Hoopa, Smith River, and then Covelo. Despite the distance, over time, the Wiyot people returned home and found ways to survive.
Tuluwat was diked and drained to graze cattle, and an industrial dry-dock boatyard was built. Foundries replaced the Native buildings. The shell midden was dug and disturbed by armchair archaeologists and contaminated with chemical pollutants. It’s hard to imagine a more horrific—and painfully accurate—metaphor of the brutal conquest and degradation of a world in balance.
In the 1970s, during a time when the Wiyot nation had been “terminated” (derecognized) by federal policy, Wiyot people worked with other local (terminated) tribes using a nonprofit. Albert James, Wiyot tribal chair at the time, was the first to request the return of the portion of the island the city of Eureka owned. The city was not ready at that time and the request was not honored.
Seidner, Leona Wilkinson, and two other women began an annual candlelight vigil in 1992 to promote healing and strengthen community relations between Wiyot peoples and the community at large. The candlelight vigil was attended by Wiyot people, people from other local tribes, and many non-Indigenous local people.
In 2000, the Wiyot bought one-and-a-half acres on the island where the shipyard had been, for $200,000. It was an environmental disaster site, and half of it was in the mudflats. The purchase was financed by a grassroots fundraising campaign—the Wiyot Sacred Sites Fund—selling T-shirts and buttons; holding benefits; and tabling at festivals, markets, and everywhere folks gathered. Through the Indian Island Cultural & Environmental Restoration Project, they immediately began restoration efforts, and with community help, they and local volunteers removed over 60 tons of scrap metal and garbage, while shoring up and preventing further destruction of the shellmound.
In 2004, Seidner went to Peter LaValle, then Eureka’s mayor, and again requested the return of the island. In 2004 the city council voted unanimously to return 40 acres, with title restrictions. It was during this phase of the community organizing that we (co-authors Michelle Vassel and David Cobb) first met.
The Wiyot have spent the last 15 years restoring the Island, removing tens of thousands of tons of toxins and hazardous waste, as well as removing invasive species such as spartina, and planting native plants. After the hazardous waste removal project was completed, and the island received a clean bill of health, the Wiyot Tribe was able to complete the ceremony interrupted by the 1860 massacre in 2014. The ensuing restoration projects have resulted in cleaner water and habitat restoration all over the bay. Everyone benefited, especially commercial oyster farmers, Humboldt County residents, commercial fishermen, and hunters. With the return of native plants and eelgrass habitat, marine life is returning.
In 2015, Seidner, no longer tribal chair but still a tribal council member, requested that the remaining city-owned portion of the island be transferred to the Wiyot. After four years of work, the City of Eureka agreed and returned the remaining 270 acres of the island to the Wiyot Tribe in November 2019. Eureka is the first municipality in US history to voluntarily return land to a tribe without any restrictions.
A Partnership Develops
Cooperation Humboldt was created in 2017 and is a social change organization dedicated to creating a solidarity economy in the local community. The organization was inspired by Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi. It aims to adapt that group’s “Jackson-Kush” plan to Humboldt’s own unique local conditions. A few key lessons from Jackson include:
a) the need to be aware of and rooted to the history of the place where you are organizing
b) the need for a clear theory that is applied in the real world with ordinary folks
c) the importance of deep, authentic political education and struggle
d) the powers—and dangers—of engaging in electoral politics
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e) the power of internal democratic decision-making
From its inception, Cooperation Humboldt was committed to paying one percent of gross revenue to the Wiyot Tribe as an “honor tax.” The idea of an honor tax did not originate with Cooperation Humboldt. Rather, it is a project of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, which was founded in 1977 and is dedicated to Indigenous peoples’ self-determination and sovereignty. It is one of the oldest organizations of its kind and supports projects all over the world. Their main offices are located on Wiyot ancestral lands.
The Honor Tax website is clear that this “is a way of recognizing and respecting the sovereignty of Native Nations and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Beyond paying the tax, Cooperation Humboldt recognized that it was important to work directly with Wiyot tribal leadership. “We recognize that the Wiyot Tribe are now and have always been the proper stewards of this land,” said co-founder Tamara McFarland. “Before we began doing land-based work in their ancestral territory, we wanted to approach them in the right way.”
“The folks at Cooperation Humboldt just kept showing up,” says Hernandez, the tribal council chair. “They came to us for a consultation. They have frequently and publicly called for other individuals and organizations to pay an honor tax. They worked with us to protect Tsakiyuwit (another Wiyot sacred site). They worked with us to begin planning a Food Forest on the College of the Redwoods campus. They worked with us during the initial craziness of the COVID pandemic.”
Marnie Atkins, manager of the Da gou rou louwi’ Cultural Center (The Ongoing Return of All), said, “Cooperation Humboldt has been a true collaborative partner for us. They hosted a workshop on Soulatluk (our Indigenous language). They helped us rethink how to co-manage our co-owned building and are helping to amplify the work we are doing to help promote the formal opening of our new cultural center.”
Cooperation Humboldt is convinced it is possible to meet everyone’s needs without exploiting others or being exploited. The group believes this can be done in a manner that does not merely sustain the existing natural world but helps regenerate it. Not just survival but thriving is possible, but this requires the intentional creation of cooperative systems of power-with, rooted in gender inclusivity, decolonization, solidarity economy, and explicit antiracism. Cooperation Humboldt’s convictions are articulated in our unambiguous “What We Believe” statement. It ends with, “We believe we can work with you (or your organization) even if you do not believe these things. But we want to be explicit and clear about who we are and what we believe.”
When the pandemic began, the Wiyot and Cooperation Humboldt banded together with 17 other local agencies in co-creating a mutual aid network. In a spirit of collaboration and cooperation, the community created the Humboldt Community COVID Response Coalition, designed to care for neighbors, ensure necessary community services continued, and build a better present and future out of this crisis. No matter how noble the intentions of our businesses and governments, we knew that many of our most vulnerable community members would be at risk of grave harm during this pandemic, and the economic impact it will leave.
Concrete services included running errands and delivering supplies to those self-isolating, making and distributing face masks and hand sanitizer, focusing on our most vulnerable community members (undocumented, houseless people, and elders). The pandemic has provided us with many lessons, not the least of which is the importance of building forward and asking the critical question, “What if we proactively and intentionally designed and created the world we want?”
Dishgamu Humboldt—dishgamu means “love” in Soulatluk—is an Indigenous-led community land trust in formation. The project began before the pandemic, but now has new urgency.
The land trust’s bylaws will ensure that the Wiyot Tribe appoints four members of the seven-member board. Full Spectrum Capital Partners (a group of impact investors) and Cooperation Humboldt will each appoint one board member. An offer has been extended to Humboldt Area Foundation (HAF) to appoint the seventh member. As of press time, the HAF board is still considering that request.
The participation with Full Spectrum Capital Partners (founded by Ruben Hernandez and Taj James) is important because they bring with them a powerful vision of building community wealth and the ability to aggregate transformational capital at scale. Cooperation Humboldt first presented the idea to the Wiyot Tribal Council in 2019, and this three-way collaborative partnership was formalized on February 10, 2020, when the Council voted unanimously to proceed.
As part of this work, Full Spectrum Capital is assisting with the development of an impact investing fund called Gouts Lakawoulh Hiwechk, which means “money that makes us well” in Soulatluk. The Investment Policy Statement will make clear that only projects approved by the Wiyot Tribe will be financed, and all projects will be undertaken to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.
Some work is already under way. The team is working with uxo architects, the only worker-owned architecture firm in California; the firm is also women-led and has worked with other community land trusts and cooperatives, including the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative.
“We are excited and honored to be involved in this groundbreaking project,” said Ashton Hamm, a worker-owner at uxo architects. “This is an opportunity to partner with stakeholders of the entire community to imagine what kind of built environment they want, not just wealthy developers.”
In pre-development are a five-story affordable housing project using cross-laminated timber, several eco-villages, and a Solidarity Economy Innovation Center. Groups backing the project include the city of Eureka, the local Small Business Development Center, the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission, the Arcata Economic Development Corporation (a regional community development financial institution or CDFI), the North Coast Co-op, the Forest Business Network, and the Jefferson Community Center.
The climate catastrophe is escalating. Existing political and economic institutions are failing, and the risk of fascism is rising too, as the failed January 6th insurrection at the Capitol makes clear. Amid these interconnected crises, this Indigenous-led, cooperative, whole-systems approach shows a possible path forward.
“We are all family, no matter how you look at that,” Wiyot tribal chair Hernandez emphasizes. “I want everyone to know that.”