Mad River Union
EUREKA – The City of Eureka still owns a large portion of Indian Island but city officials are eager to comply with a land transfer request from the former landowner, the Wiyot tribe.
After receiving a letter from Wiyot Tribal Chair Thomas Hernandez that emphasized “the tremendous cultural and spiritual significance” of Indian Island, the city has moved toward making a land transfer.
A key step was taken on April 7, when the Eureka City Council unanimously voted to refer the tribe’s request to a committee whose members will be appointed by City Manager Greg Sparks.
The committee will include up to two members of the council. Multiple council members expressed eagerness to be appointed and pushed for an “expeditious” process.
Earlier, Hernandez echoed the content of his letter and said the island is “a place of our spirituality, our religion and it’s our home.”
“I welcome you to my homeland,” Wiyot Tribal Councilmember and former Chair Cheryl Seidner told councilmembers. “You have lived here for many years, but we have lived here a little bit longer than you have.”
Describing the island as “the center of our world,” Seidner noted its history, which includes the 1860 Indian Island Massacre by a group of Eureka residents.
“We have been trying to get back the island since the day after the massacre,” she said.
Seidner also referred to recent history. In 2004, the city transferred the portion of the island where the tribe once celebrated its World Renewal Ceremony.
“That is phenomenal – something to be proud of,” she said.
With further transfer of land, “We have an opportunity to continue to work with you, to bring back to us what the city owns,” Seidner continued, adding that doing so is significant for the entire community.
In 2013, the tribe completed a clean-up of dioxin, asbestos and other toxins left by a former shipyard. The following year, the tribe held its first World Renewal Ceremony on the island since the massacre.
Tom Torma, the tribe’s cultural director, said transferring the land “means that these wetlands will be in the hands of people who have the best track record of maintaining lands in this area.”
The tribe has “not sought any shortcuts in remediating the toxic legacy of the site,” said Stephen Kullman, the tribe’s natural resources director.
Six people spoke during public comment, all of them supportive of transferring the land. One of the speakers, Jan Kraepelin, said he was involved in the 2004 land transfer and would like to be on the committee.
Sparks said that in addition to having city council representation, the committee will involve the city attorney. He recommended that the transfer be considered again by council “as soon as possible.”
Councilmembers agreed that the process should be timely. “It is absolutely the right thing to do to move forward and I look forward to being able to do what I can to support the healing of this terrible wrong,” said Councilmember Natalie Arroyo.
Councilmember Marian Brady alluded to the committee’s purpose – to review legal and tideland lease issues related to a transfer. She said she’s looking forward to getting that information and named “access to the island” as a particularly important issue.
Indian Island includes privately-owned parcels. Arroyo said Eureka resident Ron Kuhnel is one of the landowners and has asked to be a member of the committee.