Long before the concept of Christmas was known in this corner of the world, thousands of Tolowa Dee-ni’ (people) of Northern California and Southern Oregon would make the long pilgrimage — every winter solstice since time immemorial — to the village of Yan’-daa-k’vt near the mouth of the Smith River.
Canoes would line the shores of the nearby ocean beaches as the Tolowa people, numbering up to 10,000, gathered to celebrate Nee-dash, the spiritually crucial Earth Renewal Ceremony that lasts for 10 days starting on the solstice.
“The reason that the Dee-ni’ hold a Nee-dash ceremony is to celebrate, commemorate and reenact the act of Xvsh, the beginning of time, the genesis,” said Loren Me’lash-ne Bommelyn, the cultural leader of Smith River Rancheria, a local tribe of Tolowa people, in an educational video.
Yan’-daa-k’vt (Yontocket) was the chosen site for the ceremony, because it is the center of the Tolowas’ spiritual world, the site of world creation, Bommelyn said.
The centuries-long tradition at Yan’-daa-k’vt came to a tragic end in 1853 when local militias ambushed the village and killed 450 Tolowa Indians in the second-largest single mass killing of Indians in American History, according to the tribe.
The following year, Tolowa Indians attempted to keep the Nee-dash ceremony alive by moving it from destroyed Yan’-daa-k’vt to the nearby village of Ee-chuu-le, a well-established Tolowa town on the peninsula dividing present-day Lake Earl and Lake Tolowa.
But again, a local militia came to the ceremony and killed at least 65 people.
“On New Year’s Day of 1855, seven layers of Dee-ni’ bodies were burned by the armed forces in the Great Dance House of ‘Ee-chuu-le,’ Bommelyn wrote in a story of the events.
The violent encounters triggered the surviving Tolowa people to negotiate and sign a treaty with the immigrants during the first week of 1855.
Since 2010, Yan’-daa-k’vt and Ee-chuu-le have once again become sites where Tolowa people gather near the winter solstice, but now the focus is to honor the memory and lives of the Tolowa ancestors that were murdered in the 1850s. The vigils are now part of the opening of the Nee-dash ceremony providing a way to seek balance — a requirement of the ceremony.
The Smith River Rancheria decided to hold the 2013 candlelight vigil at Ee-chuu-le since the people killed in that event deserve as much recognition as the Yan’-daa-k’vt victims.
Tribal leaders said that Friday night’s vigil would help the Tolowa people who were killed at Ee-chuu-le to move forward.
“The spirits are real and the spirits here will be released after we do this tonight,” said Lena Bommelyn, a Karuk tribal member and spouse to Loren Bommelyn.
This year’s vigil featured guest speaker Chris Peters, the president and CEO of the Seventh Generation Foundation, a prominent indigenous non-profit organization spanning North and South America that often works on rekindling traditional ceremonies.
Peters highlighted the moral hypocrisy of immigrant settlers in Del Norte County and throughout the region building Christian churches while simultaneously efforts were made to exterminate local Indians. Peters also suggested that the inhabitants of Del Norte County should be paying taxes to the Tolowa people.
If there was ever a time that the world needed a renewal ceremony, this was it, Bommelyn said, adding that smelt don’t come to the beaches anymore and mud hens are not in the lagoons encircling Ee-chuu-le.
“We have to wake up,” Bommelyn said.
Similar to the ideology of truth and reconciliation commissions like those set up in post-apartheid South Africa, the vigil was designed to move past the pain by talking about the injustices openly.
“We have to figure out a way to move from it, through it, beyond it and also embrace it,” Bommelyn said. “How can we get strength from this?”
During the vigil, tribal members celebrated the rich culture and traditions of Ee-chuu-le while honoring the fallen village.
With ownership reaching from the coast of Point St. George to modern-day Kellogg Road and then eastward up the Smith River to Signal Peak on the North Fork Smith, the Ee-chuu-le district was well-known for its wealth. Abundant duck populations on the coastal lagoons of Earl and Tolowa provided down and feathers for hand-woven tule beddings that were the envy of other tribes.
Ee-chuu-le was also the place where Tolowa Dee-ni’ women came to participate in the Flower Dance, which marked the transition from adolescence to womanhood.
The names of people who lived in Ee-chuu-le that the tribe could locate were read during the vigil. Many of the members of Smith River Rancheria are descendants of the survivors of Ee-chuu-le.
“This was an outright campaign to destroy the people of California — the native people,” Bommelyn said, after detailing how the state of California appropriated $1.6 million to militias for the extermination of Indians.
The Northern California campaign against Indians has been called the most textbook definition of genocide that occurred in post-Columbian North America.
“Some scholars have argued on the basis of contemporary international law, however, that, while comparable losses of population occurred throughout native North America after 1492, it is primarily in northern California between 1850 and 1865 that a major factor in this population decline can be legalistically and technically defined as ‘genocide’ under 1948 United Nations Conventions criteria,” wrote Thomas Buckley in his 2002 book, “Standing Ground: Yurok Indian Spirituality, 1850 - 1990.”
“Buckley writes that the point of the distinction is not to minimize injustices to Indians elsewhere, “but rather to point out the particular evil of state-sanctioned attempts to exterminate outright all Indian people in northern California.”
Bommelyn said that the point of the vigil is not to “be stuck in the horror of it” but to bring the event to light, “to look at it and ask, ‘what can we do from there?’”