Adam Canter, Wiyot Tribe
Natural Resource Specialist
It was a gray and cold fall day in the lower Eel River Valley, or Wiyat as it was known in the language of the people that have called the greater Humboldt Bay area home since time immemorial. The rejuvenating rain and wind had held off for the time being, as a group of around two hundred folks marched from Eagle Prairie (now Rio Dell) across the Eel River bridge to Scotia (tokēnēwolok), in hopes of drawing attention to, and stopping, a development project that would desecrate a Wiyot sacred site at Tsakiyuwit (Bear River Ridge).
Marching with my four and seven-year old daughters, their excitement billowed over when we reached the Winema Theatre, its warm redwood illuminated with the even warmer energy of the crowd that had assembled that day. As the kids (and adults) grabbed sprinkled doughnuts and hot cocoa, I looked up to see the humble and wise presence of Wiyot elder and cultural liaison, Cheryl Seidner, enter the theatre. It was immediately apparent that this was a women that was well-loved and respected by the diverse and larger group present, as folks shared hugs and cleared the path for her to make her way to the stage where she would welcome and thank us for coming with a prayer and song, which brought many in the room to tears. She went on to note that she wasn’t one for protesting and never could quite understand those that took to the streets in opposition to the war in Viet Nam, preferring a more respectable route toward solutions, and that this was her first “protest rally speech”, highlighting the significance of the day and the trajectory and evolution of her public and cultural service to the community.
I first met Cheryl Seidner about six years ago, when I began my relationship with the Wiyot when I was brought on part-time to do some botanical work for the Tribe’s Natural Resources Department. I remember it took a while for folks to warm up to me, being the new (and red-headed) kid on the block, but the longer I stuck around and the more I learned about Wiyot land stewardship, ethnobotany, and culture, the more I found myself part of an amazing family that I had never had before, and began seeing things that were vestiges of the Wiyot’s caretaking of the landscape. I remember being excited about the first ethnobotanical research grant I received and was eager to dive into the community and find out everything I could from Tribal elders and citizens, sending out solicitations in the Tribe’s newsletter and through email. Needless to say, I didn’t quite get the response that I was hoping for, as my requests went unanswered. Until one day, I got a buzz from our receptionist saying that Cheryl Seidner was on the phone for me!? It had to be a mistake I thought, but sure enough there she was, saying, “So, I hear you’re looking to interview elders about Wiyot cultural plants, well, come on over, my house is right across the street.”
Little did I know that our first meeting would be the beginning of a heartfelt relationship that would take me from the saltmarshes of Tuluwat (Indian Island) and dunes of the wigi (Humboldt Bay) lowlands to the high-prayer prairies of Tsakiyuwit, learning respect for all places and people in between, humbleness, clarity, and the age old golden rule, “Do unto Others”, which from Cheryl means to all of the tree of life, not just the human world. I also learned from Cheryl and the Wiyot that the world needs renewal as we fall into ruts, and to prevent this we must periodically shake the dust off, question our intentions and actions, and look for the best solutions for the greatest good.
Cheryl’s work to preserve Wiyot culture and sacred places most likely began before she was even born, noted in a 2004 North Coast Journal (NCJ) interview about the return of 40 acres on Tuluwat by the City of Eureka. When asked by someone about when the Tribe first started working to the get the island back, she replied, “The day after the massacre: Feb. 27, 1860. That’s when we started. It may not have come around to everybody’s mind easily, but I think it’s in our DNA to have it back. That’s where we belong; that’s where our dances belong.”(www.northcoastjournal.com/070104/cover0701.html)
Cheryl’s memories of her parents and early family life on Table Bluff bring out a glow in her face and clearly shaped her sense of stewardship for the Earth and her hardworking, humble, and kind personality. As she mentioned to me once that her childhood with her sister Leona, “were the best of times.”
Cheryl also remembers in the early 1970’s when her uncle, Albert James, first suggested that the Tribe push to get Tuluwat back, part of the larger fight at the time to get back tribal status, which was stripped away by the California Rancheria Termination Acts of the late 1950’s. In 1981, the Wiyot at Table Bluff were one of the first reservations to get their recognition returned through a successful lawsuit with the federal government.
In 1996, Cheryl was elected to the tribal council and became chair; she knew that getting Tuluwat back should be a number one priority. A few years later when the City of Eureka put 1.5 acres adjacent to one of the primary shellmounds on the Island up for sale for $100,000, Cheryl saw it as an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. Without a solid funding source, Seidner and the Tribe raised the money to acquire the parcel through grassroots efforts, including bake sales, fundraising posters, Indian Taco feeds, and more. During a conference of the National Congress of American Indians, after speaking to the group about the Tribe’s efforts, “a man stood up with a $100 bill in his hand and urged the few hundred people in attendance to match. Seidner says she raised almost $40,000 that day.” (NCJ 2019)
Looking back on 2019, with the repatriation of Tuluwat, the victory for Tsakiyuwit and all it stands for, and the last decade of successes, it is clearly the time of the return of the Wiyot, who have survived and stayed strong, despite being knocked down a few times since the Europeans arrived.
As Cheryl has pointed out, “The Wiyot were here before America.” The traditional ecological knowledge that the Wiyot hold rests on thousands of years of local experience, wisdom, and understanding of how the human world is one with the natural world, and the role we are honored to play in helping maintain the ecological balance.
During the recent fight to protect Tsakiyuwit from industrial wind-power development by the Terra-Gen corporation, huge considerations had to be made by all, especially the Tribe who care deeply about the climate crisis but understand the related and priceless value of the ecological systems and services that nature provides to moderate the climate and maintain biodiversity and culture. Cheryl showed impeccable leadership when the Tribe was essentially offered a one-million-dollar bribe from Terra-Gen in compensation for the loss of the Tsakiyuwit. When called up to the lectern by Supervisor Bohn, Cheryl’s response struck like lightning on a high prairie, “You would not sell your mother. We cannot sell our Earth,” she said. “We come from the Earth…and the Tribe needed to be at the table for these discussions.” The day that the Board of Supervisors voted down the Terra-Gen project, December 17, 2019, was a day that the Wiyot and people of Humboldt County changed history, crystalizing the significance that indigenous people have and must play in the democratic process and on the environmental stage. It was a day of de-colonialization at its finest, which would not have been possible with-out the grassroots activism, the words of many, and especially the wisdom of Cheryl Seidner.
As we ease into 2020 and the next decade, we must quicken the pace that we move toward healing the Earth and the steps we take to return balance. Locally, with Tuluwat as the center of the universe along the pendulum between Tsakiyuwit (Bear River Ridge) and Qus Bugaduli’m (Strawberry Prairie), we can have hope that the second world renewal ceremony since 1860 is planned for this March, as we move out of the darkness of winter and into the light.
A few months ago, while up on Tsakiyuwit with Cheryl, she clarified the good intentions that the Wiyot have for all existence in these words, “When we have our World Renewal Ceremony in March, it’s not for just the Wiyot people, its not just for Eureka, it’s not just for Humboldt County, we are global, it’s for the world, we want to make the world right, we want to put it into balance.” It is through the leadership of indigenous voices like Cheryl Seidner, alongside the passionate hearts of a caring community, that we can together tip the pendulum back to center.
The Wiyot Tribe would like to thank all of the people that came out in solidarity for Tsakiyuwit. It took all of us. Best wishes and good health to everyone in 2020 and beyond.
Rra’dutwas (with kindness),