The families had been celebrating the World Renewal Ceremony for a week—dancing, singing, feasting, remembering ancestors and enjoying each other’s company. The celebration was held annually, on an island in the bay, where the ancient village of Tuluwat stood. At night, the Wiyot people slept.
Early on the cool winter morning of February 26, 1860, a group of white settlers armed with hatchets, clubs and knives paddled to the island. They left their guns behind so that their presence would not be know to the nearby neighbors in the town of Eureka. Once arrived, sleeping Wiyot men, women and children, exhausted from a week of ceremonial dance, were caught unaware and brutally slain. Two other village sites were raided that night, on the Eel River and on the South Spit. Reports of the number of people killed that night vary from 80 to 200.
A young writer named Bret Harte, who lived in the area, reported the 1860 massacre. Harte published a detailed account condemning the event, writing, “a more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women wrinkled and decrepit lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long grey hair. Infants scarcely a span along, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds.” After publishing the editorial, his life was threatened and he was forced to flee to San Francisco. No one was ever brought to trial.
Reading this account of the massacre of the Wiyot people, I am deeply saddened. When I was in El Salvador, visiting the site where six priests were murdered in cold blood in 1989, we were shown photos taken the morning after. Their bodies lay in the grass, blood pooled around their heads. Looking at the photos, my stomach churned. My limbs felt heavy. I could barely catch my breath. A crucifixion.
These stories seem gruesome for a church newsletter, but for a religious people who worship a man brutally killed by oppressors, I have hope that we can face the violence in our world. But I also hope that our stomachs churn and a deep mourning surges up through our souls, so that we may be called to act. This are the stories that our young people face as they learn our history, and we as a church must help them face these modern-day crucifixions so that they can take part in the redemption and resurrection of the world.