Long before there was a company named Terra-Gen, an electrical grid or climate crisis threatening the planet, the Humboldt Bay region was inhabited by Wiyot people – as many as 3,000 of them, by some estimates – who lived in some 20 villages scattered around the bay. It’s where their ancestors lived, and their ancestors’ ancestors. It is where Wiyot people still live.
Scattered throughout the Wiyot’s ancestral territory are a number of sacred sites. Among them is the village of Tuluwat, which sits on Duluwat Island and is considered the cultural and physical center of the Wiyot universe. We recently applauded as the city of Eureka returned 200 acres of the island to the tribe some 160 years after it was taken in a bloody massacre, when a group of settlers slaughtered women, children and elders in the dead of night during a sacred ceremony.
While horrific, the infamous massacre was not an isolated incident. In fact, it came as part of a state-sanctioned genocide that came complete with human trafficking, systemic violence and murder. It was an effort California’s first governor Pete Burnett called a “war of extermination.” (To better understand the state’s legacy of genocide and slavery, we strongly suggest exploring the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California’s online project Gold Chains, which can be found at www.goldchainsca.org.)
A prominent perpetrator of this extermination was Seth Kinman, who moved to Humboldt County in the early 1850s, joined the California Volunteer Infantry and other militias, and was known to shoot Native people on sight and pose with their scalps for pictures. He and his family operated a dairy on Bear River Ridge and, while we were unable to find the details of his acquisition of this land, it seems safe to presume he took it by force. For more than a century now, a pond on the property has borne his name. (Read more about Kinman in Cutcha Risling Baldy’s April 11 op-ed “Genocide and Fugly Chairs.”)
But long before Bear River Ridge came into Kinman’s possession, the Wiyot called it Tsakiyuwit and considered it a sacred place. Its prairies were sources of food and cultural materials, and its vistas were high prayer sites from which the Wiyot could see a large expanse of the tribe’s ancestral territory, almost all of which has since been seized and subdivided.
This is the lens through which we must talk about the proposed wind farm project, which would erect 47 wind turbines – each sitting on huge concrete platforms and stretching some 600 feet into the sky – along Monument and Bear River ridges. The wind farm, which is projected to generate enough electricity to power almost 40,000 homes, currently sits before the Humboldt County Planning Commission, which seems poised to decide its fate Nov. 21.
To be clear, in a vacuum, there would be a lot to like about the project. The climate crisis confronting the planet is very real and very dire. The consensus is that the world is at a tipping point and communities around the globe have maybe a decade to take dramatic actions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions before facing a potentially irreversible impacts with massive environmental, economic and human consequences. There are also many reasons for legitimate concern about the project, including but not limited to the destruction of forests and native grasslands that act as carbon sinks, impacts on threatened bird populations, the ultimate decommissioning of the industrial site and the fact that, due to Terra-Gen’s ownership’s other investments, its proceeds could well be used to fund other power sources that will continue to pollute the environment.
But we are not in a vacuum. We are in a historical moment between the attempted destruction of a people and a planet, and whatever we do next. If we are to move forward as an equitable society, it cannot be with further harm to Native land and culture.
The Wiyot Tribe has formally opposed the project and the conversation should end there. The Wiyot people have been good environmental stewards of this land since time immemorial. More recently, they have worked to clean up the toxic legacy at Tuluwat their ancestors’ murderers left in their wake. The climate crisis is plainly not of the tribe’s making.
The planning commission needs to reject this project and we as a community need to look for other answers. Individually, we all need to sacrifice – whether it be walking instead of driving, shopping locally instead of online or using re-usable cups and foregoing single-use plastics. Collectively, we need to prioritize renewable energy projects and sacrifice to bring them to fruition. The climate crisis is here and Humboldt County will not be spared.
But all that said, trampling over the Wiyot Tribe’s objections to advance a for-profit project that will desecrate sacred tribal land cannot be the answer.
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