Friday, November 22, 2019

A city in California gave land back to indigenous people. It’s a start.

  On Oct. 21, the northern California city of Eureka returned more than 200 acres of land on Duluwat Island to the Wiyot Tribe, the indigenous inhabitants of the area. The land — which represents the physical and cultural center of the universe for Wiyot peoples — was taken during a massacre of the tribe’s women, children, and elders in 1860.

  This massacre, followed by subsequent relocation to Fort Humboldt, resulted in the death of nearly one half of the pre-contact Wiyot population — estimated at close to 2,000 people. Today, the tribe has returned to near its ancestral territory after long legal fights to gain federal recognition, with close to 600 Wiyot people living locally.

  Eureka’s return is believed to be the first time a local government has returned land to a tribe in the U.S. Eureka City Council member Kim Bergel described the return as “the right thing to do.”

  Eureka’s actions are significant politically, spiritually, and also economically. While Duluwat Island is relatively small, returning the land takes the tiniest step towards rectifying the injustices that the United States has committed towards Wiyot peoples. It signifies a desire to help Wiyot peoples rebuild their community and nation after centuries of dispossession and genocide.

  From 1776 to 1887, the United States transferred nearly 1.5 billion acres of land into American control. Initially, this was done through treaty and executive order or through forcible removal of indigenous peoples from their homelands, often putting them on reservations. While this made up the majority of land seizures, the seizure of land also included the 1887 Dawes Act, otherwise known as Allotment, which sought to individualize Indian land ownership, converting indigenous peoples into models of homesteading farmers. The Act would cause indigenous-controlled land to go from 138 million acres in 1887 to just 48 million acres by 1934.

  The seizure of lands and territories and the creation of reservations is a significant reason why indigenous communities have such concentrated poverty in the United States. Imagine being forced to move from the only home you have ever known to a place you have never been, with fewer resources to succeed there, and then being told that the lifestyle that has helped you prosper is “uncivilized,” and that to survive, you need to embrace a completely new worldview. Not exactly a model for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

  For many, the taking of land coincided with an effort to eradicate indigenous peoples in general. Peter Burnett, the first governor of California, remarked as such when he told the nascent legislature in 1851 “that a war of extermination will continue to be waged between races, until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

  To exterminate a whole group means not just the physical killing of a community. It means the destruction of a worldview, a home. This extermination created Allotment. It created boarding schools that sought to “kill the Indian, and save the man.” It created Indian termination policy, which sought to terminate tribes, relocating and assimilating indigenous peoples. All of these American policies created the conditions for the intense poverty that indigenous peoples face today.

  These processes of extermination have not resulted in the erasure of indigenous peoples in the United States – far from it. They have altered the ways in which indigenous peoples interact with the world, though. Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hupa/Yurok/Karuk), assistant professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University, notes two things in this regard: First, that the world that contemporary indigenous peoples inhabit is a post-apocalyptic one. Second, that this post-apocalypse alters indigenous peoples’ abilities to thrive socially, communally, politically, and economically. When your base mode of living for generations is mere survival, how can you imagine building anything beyond that?

  The combination of both land seizure and eradication efforts has resulted in significant economic disparities for indigenous peoples in the United States. The 2008 Census estimated that 30 percent of all American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) peoples were in poverty. This reached 40 percent for those living on a reservation. Comparatively, the total U.S. population recorded a poverty rate of 16 percent. According to a 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the AI/AN unemployment rate was 7.8 percent. Comparatively, the total U.S. rate hovered around 4.4 percent.

  This is what makes the return of Duluwat Island to Wiyot peoples so important. It acknowledges past wrongs, understands how the original seizure of land harmed generations irreparably, and tries to rectify that in a culturally, spiritually, politically, and economically significant way. In giving back the land, instead of the Wiyot Tribe buying the land back as has happened previously, Eureka took a step towards conciliation.

  While the United States has often tried to find alternative methods of compensation for indigenous land, the federal government would do well to follow the example of Eureka and the Wiyot Tribe. Just give the land back.

  About the author: Rory Taylor is a contributing writer at Teen Vogue and a Fulbright Scholar studying how the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples acts as a tool of legal advocacy for indigenous groups.

  This article was published by

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