Killing a gym full of children

February 26, 2010


This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Indian Island Massacre.

While I know this anniversary is being recognized by tribal members and others , I think it is most important to remember that that those killed were people,  and not just “Indians”. 

John Grisham wrote the book, A Time to Kill, about a black father in the deep south who kills two white men that raped his daughter.  

Through much of the book, race is the overarching issue.  The death of two white men at the hands of a negro.  Two of “us” killed by one of “them”,  and it is only when the jurors are urged to imagine the victim as a little white girl and her father as a father, instead of a black man, that they are able to sympathize.  They are finally able to recognize a family who suffered a great injustice they simply could not abide.

If one hundred and fifty school children and their mothers were brutally murdered during a school event, everyone in the community would recognize the loss years later. This massacre, one of too many that happened in this area during the settlement period, should be no different.  

If you have to, picture a school gym full of parents and children. Imagine a basketball game or school play, everyone joyous, the community together.  Then imagine five or six men coming in and locking the doors behind them.  They are carrying hatchets and knives and you watch from the stands as cheerleaders with ponytails and  boys with long legs and hair in their eyes are struck down, their skulls split with axes, screaming as they fall bleeding and dying to the floor.  Imagine toddlers, who moments earlier, were crawling on the stands, stabbed and cast aside.  Imagine watching as parents are beaten and killed as they run to protect their children.   Imagine the community’s  pain.  Imagine the loss of so much potential. The loss of so many people…

This happened.  Here.  And it makes no difference that they were “Indian”.  Please take a moment to honor the victims and their families.

Can you really blame me for stealing?

August 23, 2009
Humboldt County Elk

Humboldt County Elk


I stole an apple today.  Technically I guess I took two, but after I took a bite out of the not-even-close-to-ripe one, I threw it away.  Then I picked another and took it with me.

I’d gone for a walk without water or food.  It was warm and I was thirsty. 

The apple trees were untended and old, with gnarled trunks and crowded limbs.  It didn’t look like anyone cared, really.  Or that anyone would notice a missing apple or two.  And honestly I got so caught up in the fact that these three old apple trees were sitting in a row in the middle of a hay field that I didn’t think much about it before I picked them. It must have been part of an old homestead.  

I spotted the trees after following the bends in the trail, anxious to see what was next.  And maybe climbing a fence/gate (but there was no sign telling me not to).  It was also after rounding a corner and seeing an big umbrella shaped t.v. antenna.  That’s when I decided to turn around.  I could fool myself that the fence was to keep cattle in, but couldn’t ignore someone’s home.  Maybe I was on private property, after all.

Isaac Cullberg, a well known pioneer, wrote casually in his diary of taking material from an Indian house to start a fire.  He was cold, I’m sure, just like I was thirsty today.  Other settlers often lamented that the meadows surrounding  them were  just begging to be cattle pasture.  If only those darn savages weren’t in the way.  The invaders hunted deer and elk and bear for meat and hides and target practice.

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Gunther’s memory of the massacre

August 8, 2009
Gunther's mansion on Indian Island: HSU Photo Archives

Gunther's mansion on Indian Island: HSU Photo Archives

I’ve decided that sometimes, when I am going out of town or have little to say, I will simply post excerpts/information I’ve dug up over the years that others may not have seen (this time I’m going out of town) .

I won’t fixate on the massacres of February 1860, but thought a little more information from a different perspective couldn’t hurt.

This also emphasizes a point brought up in one of Ernie’s comments that many folks here disagreed with the harsh treatment of the Natives, but were scared.   A man capable of killing an infant with a hatchet was not a man you wanted for an enemy, especially if you had a family.  These were scary people and scary times,  yet many had risked everything to come “out west” and had to make it work.   So you kept your mouth shut…

The following is from Genocide in Northwestern California, by Jack Norton—pg. 86-88, quoting  Andrew M. Genzoli and Wallace E. Martin, Redwood Cavalcade… Pioneer Life, Times (Eureka, California Schooner Features, 1968), pp. 11-13

Years after the Indian Island massacre,  Robert Gunther was asked to address a special ban­quet at the Old Sequoia Yacht Club, which for years stood on the south end of Gunther Island (Indian Island). In a surprisingly can­did presentation, he reviewed the heinous acts of butchery, but also stated that secretly the parties who did the killing had been pointed out. The following description of activities involved in the genocide committed by a gang of ruffians euphemistically called “the good citizens of Humboldt” bears repeating in full:

Early in 1860, I learned that Indian Island was for sale. It was owned by a Captain Moore who took up eighty acres on Washington’s birthday, 1860, and three days later, the Indian massacre occurred.

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What can’t be understood

August 6, 2009
Indian Island-site of one massacre

Indian Island-site of one massacre

When I first learned that Lucy had been on Indian Island at the time of the massacre, I tried to imagine her experience.

The holocaust was the closest thing that came to mind.  The same genocide. The same mindless slaughter.  Millions died in Germany and probably only thousands here, but families were ripped apart and the  bodies piled up just the same.   

There are differences I still can’t quite get my head around. We’ve seen movies where there is a heavy knock on the door and man with a German accent demands entrance, looking for Jews.  We’ve read Anne Frank and seen images of cattle cars filled with hollow eyed captives….    

But the women and children slaughtered on Indian Island were attacked before daybreak and killed without warning. 

“…the assassins…stealthily approached the shore and landed…     They … penetrate each lodge; one holds the light to show where to strike, and while the faces of the poor women and children … are… turned up…, they begin their work of death with axes, hatches and knives.  Amidst the wailing of mutilated infants, the cries of agony of children, the shrieks and groans of mothers in death, the savage blows are given, cutting through bone, and brain.  The cries for mercy are met by joke and libidinous remark, while the bloody ax descends with unpitying stroke, again and again, doing its work of death, the hatchet and knife finishing what the ax left undone.  A few escaped—a child under the body of its dead mother, a young woman wounded, and another who hid in the bushes.

 In an hour they had accomplished their work and were gone, laden with the spoil of Indian blankets, leaving their victims strewed around, weltering in their gore—some dead, some dying, some writhing in pain and anguish, exhibiting a scene such as not tongue can tell, and no eye had ever seen before on our continent, even thought savages practiced in cruelty were the perpetrators.  ~ Reader, this is no fancied sketch, no exaggerated tale; it falls short of the stern reality.  But a short time after, the writer was upon the ground with feet treading in human blood, horrified with the awful and sickening sights which met the eye wherever it turned. Here was another fatally wounded hugging the mutilated carcass of her dying infant to her bosom; there, a poor children of two years old, with its ear and scalp tore from the side of its little head.  Here a father frantic with grief over the blooding corpses of his four little children and wife; there a brother and sister bitterly weeping an, and trying to soothe with cold water, the pallid face of a dying relative.  Here, an aged female still living and sitting up, though covered with ghastly wounds, and dyed in her own blood; there a living infant by its dead mother, desirous of drawing some nourishment from a source that had ceased to flow.  ~The wounded, dead and dying were found all around and in every lodge the skulls and frames of women and children cleft with axes and hatchets, and stabbed with knives, and the brains of an infant oozing from its broken head to the ground… “  [Daily Evening Bulletin, S.F., 13 March 1860]

Indian Island was only one massacre, made public by the proximity to Eureka.  Many other natives were killed in their villages and in the surrounding countryside, atrocities hidden by isolation and secrecy.   

Maybe such a thing shouldn’t be imagined.