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Updated 3:46pm - Sep 2, 2014

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In Focus: Tolowa Dunes

Tribal elder William Richards led "Walking in the Footsteps of Tolowa" on Sunday during the Aleutian Goose Festival. (The Daily Triplicate/Hilary Corrigan).
Tribal elder William Richards led "Walking in the Footsteps of Tolowa" on Sunday during the Aleutian Goose Festival. (The Daily Triplicate/Hilary Corrigan).

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

Etchulet — meaning large point of land — once hosted up to 400 Tolowa along its rolling, forested and marshy strip between Lake Earl and Lake Tolowa.

They lived by the seasons, fishing, gathering berries and hunting waterfowl once so abundant that wings darkened the sky. A non-militant culture, Tolowa people crafted intricate baskets and elaborate regalia.

"We lived with the land, lived on the land, that's what determined our culture," said tribal elder William Richards. "Lived with the land."

That life died when white settlers arrived in the 1850s and also recognized the value of local natural resources — gold, timber, ranch and farm lands.

Researchers estimate that the region that would become Del Norte and Curry counties hosted 10,000 Tolowa members before that point. By 1900, fewer than 200 remained.

The annual Aleutian Goose Festival during the weekend celebrated the bird's comeback from near-extinction, but the event also included trips with Tolowa leaders who showcased the region's native settlements and a local history riddled with horror.

"I relate to the return of the geese because we were nearly extinct," said tribal member Loren Bommelyn.

An 1853 massacre to the north, at Yontocket, would kill up to 600 Tolowa who had gathered for Nee-dash, an annual world renewal ceremony. Vigilantes set fire to homes as ceremony participants slept, then shot them as they fled the flames. The next year, when Tolowa gathered for the ceremony at Etchulet, militia, rangers and settlers repeated the massacre, killing hundreds more.

"People don't even know it happened," Bommelyn said. "People aren't even aware that a holocaust even occurred here."

Records show government approvals for Native Americans' scalps, along with weapons and ammunition reimbursements. Settlers took Native Americans' children as slaves or sent them in cattle trucks to boarding schools that erased their culture's attributes with different hair cuts, clothes and language.

"Sadly, the California legislature played right into their hands and did whatever these townspeople wanted," Richards said. "They did a thorough job because they had the power and the law was on their side."

This year, Del Norte County celebrates its 150th anniversary as a political entity that formed in 1857.

"That's when terrorism really struck this area," Richards said. "That's when things started to turn upside down."

A former tribal council member whose parents and grandparents were born in Yontocket and Etchulet, Richards began to learn of local history in the 1950s and 60s.

"Very eye-opening, even to me. I never really thought that much about what happened," he said.

Events like the festival give tribal members a chance to teach the local history segments that text books and history classes have long ignored by using a European perspective.

"They don't go into the detail of who was here," Richards said. "Tell the truth. History didn't start with Columbus."

The tours also offer a chance to highlight a Tolowa perspective that respects other beings and nature.

"Those geese have just as much right to be here as anybody else," Bommelyn said. "Everything was put on the earth for a reason."

Now a state-protected refuge, the approximately 5,000-acre Tolowa Dunes State Park — including Etchulet — boasts 60 miles of shoreline and 20 miles of trails and hosts 50 different types of mammals, 300 species of birds, various plants and insects.

But many of the Tolowa stories and facts have died with tribal elders.

"I didn't know that I was living with a group of people who, if I had just asked them some questions, I could have gained a lot of knowledge," Richards said. "Didn't realize what our elders knew and didn't have the foresight to ask."

The region also lacks records of the names of those killed in massacres and buried in nearby cemeteries.

"One of these days, I'd like to know," Richards said.

Reach Hilary Corrigan at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

 


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