|Wiyot Tribal members|
It was an unusual request for the drab, staid confines of Eureka City Council Chambers.
"Do I have time to sing you a song?" she asked from the podium.
"Sure," then Mayor Frank Jager replied.
With that, Cheryl Seidner, a Wiyot tribal elder, clad in a traditional knit cap, tilted her head back, eyes closed, and began to sing.
As the words of "We're Coming Home" sung in Wiyot began to fill the room, slowly, one by one, the crowd rose to its feet. City staff followed suit, then members of the city council, until the entire room stood in rapt attention. When the song came to a close, Councilmember Kim Bergel turned away, dabbing tears from her eyes.
The moment underscored the gravity of the action the council took a few minutes later, when it voted unanimously to declare more than 200 acres of city-owned land on Indian Island "surplus property" and directed the city manager to negotiate its return to the Wiyot Tribe, for whom the island was home for at least 1,000 years, according to an archeologist, and since time immemorial, according to the tribe. But in Wiyot culture the island represents more than an ancient village site or a historical homeland — it's the physical and cultural center of the universe, a place with the spiritual power to bring balance to all else.
Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez underscored this when he addressed the council that evening, saying he refused to call the island — named Duluwat in the Wiyot language and encompassing the villages of Tuluwat and Etpidohl — "surplus property" as it was bureaucratically being dubbed.
"It's sacred land," he said. "This is our sacred property. It's where our ancestors are. That's where our ancestors are buried, and that's what we recognize it as. It's the center of our world."
Following the council's direction given at that Dec. 4, 2018, meeting, City Manager Greg Sparks and the Wiyot Tribe are currently working to finish the paperwork needed to officially transfer ownership of the land back to the tribe. It's a move without precedent across the nation, according to numerous experts consulted for this story, all of whom said that while there have been instances of the federal government, nonprofits and private entities returning land to tribes, Eureka appears to be the first local municipality to have ever taken such a step.
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