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  • "Side by Side or Facing One Another":Writing and Collaborative Ethnography in Comparative Perspective
  • Les W. Field (bio)


In 2000, I began a collaborative project with Cheryl Seidner, the chair of the Table Bluff Wiyot Rancheria, and her sister, Leona Wilkinson, who heads the tribe's Culture Committee. Seidner, Wilkinson, and I agreed to collaboratively formulate the methods and goals of a project of mutual interest and to also work together to shape the final written form that resulted from our work.

Their great-grandfather had survived the 1860 Indian Island Massacre, where more than sixty and likely as many as two hundred Wiyot men, women, and children were killed by six white men, "known to be landowners and businessmen" from the nearby city of Eureka, California (Kowinski 2004, D1). The Wiyot village of Tuluwat, located on what became known as Indian Island in Humboldt Bay, had been a site where Wiyot bands had conducted World Renewal ceremonies.1 The massacre was perpetrated while a large number of Wiyots had congregated at the village for these ritual dances. In the years following the massacre, the site was overtaken by a shipyard. By the middle of the twentieth century, it had become desolate, trash strewn, and forgotten except by the descendants of the survivors. Since the time of the massacre, the Wiyot people had not enacted the ceremonies of World Renewal. Much of the remnant population of Wiyot who survived the massacre, and the ravages of alcoholism and endemic poverty that followed, settled at the Table Bluff Rancheria.

Under Seidner's leadership, the Table Bluff Wiyot of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century have conducted a determined [End Page 32] campaign to repurchase land on the island, including the site of the massacre, and heal through a cultural renaissance the psychic traumas caused by their near genocide. The Wiyots purchased and rehabilitated just an acre and a half of the island in 2000, having raised funds through the Wiyot Sacred Site Fund. In 2004, the Eureka City Council voted to return forty acres of Indian Island to the Wiyots, "the only city in California to return a sacred site to a native people" (Vogel 2004).

I met up with Seidner and Wilkinson because I was trying to figure out the significance of the abalone mollusk to contemporary California Indian peoples, working with tribes and individuals in those tribes who also thought this was an important research question. The Wiyot telling of the story of Abalone Woman, a spirit-being important to several tribes in northwestern coastal California, is well known in both anthropological and Native circles in California. The story was recorded and translated by linguist Karl Teeter in the 1920s (see Teeter and Nichols 1993).

Seidner and Wilkinson were willing to discuss the story of Abalone Woman, although initially they were unsure of what I was looking for. I asked them what the story meant to contemporary Wiyots, and they spent many hours with me discussing Wiyot history and culture, and how they planned to make Indian Island once again the center of Wiyot ceremony. Neither of them were strangers to collaborative work with non-Wiyots. They had been promoting public remembrance of the massacre among the wider community in Eureka and Arcata for more than a decade, and through extensive interviews with Ron Johnson, contributed to an important volume about the weaving of basket caps (Johnson and Marks 1997). Seidner and Wilkinson have assumed very public profiles in pursuit of healing and remembrance, which also means that their feelings about the genocidal experiences of their people and their consciousness of the need to represent that suffering to the non-Wiyot world remain close to the surface.

In discussions with both women, it became clear that the significance of Abalone Woman's story had not diminished, and Seidner believes the story's importance will grow as the Wiyot repair longstanding historic traumas. In response to my queries about Abalone Woman's meaning for contemporary Wiyot people, Cheryl wrote three installments of a prose-poem reflection on Hiwat (Abalone Woman), Wiyot history, and her own personal struggles and milestones over the course of our three-year discussion...


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pp. 32-50
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