The Eureka City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to adopt the second draft of a letter from Mayor Frank Jager to the Wiyot Tribe, scaling back what had been the first formal apology for the 1860 massacre on Indian Island, in which up to 200 sleeping tribe members -- mostly women and children -- were killed by a group of men from Eureka.
"It's a different kind of apology letter, but it certainly is an apology," Jager said, adding the original letter was not rewritten for liability issues. "It calls for reconciliation."
Replacing language in the first draft of Jager's letter that explicitly attributed the massacre to Eureka citizens and offered a formal apology to the Wiyot people for the actions of Eureka's people, the second draft, penned by the mayor and city staff on Tuesday, offers only support to the Wiyot Tribe, and refrains from specifying who did the killing.
"As mayor of Eureka, on behalf of the city council and the people of Eureka, we offer our support to the Wiyot Tribe and reaffirm our commitment toward healing the Wiyot people's wounds and continuing to work toward establishing better relationships rooted in reconciliation," the letter reads in part. "The continuation of the Wiyot Renewal Ceremony is a step toward the healing of the wounds that have been a scar on our community."
In the first draft, released to the public on Monday, the city explicitly apologizes.
"As mayor of Eureka, on behalf of the city council and the people of Eureka, we would like to offer a formal apology to the Wiyot people for the actions of our people in 1860," the first draft reads. "Nothing we can say or do can make up for what occurred on that night of infamy. It will forever be a scar on our history. We can, however, with our present and future actions of support for the Wiyot, work to remove the prejudice and bigotry that still exists in our society today."
Councilwoman Linda Atkins called the first letter "heartfelt," and the second "bureaucratic."
"My concern is that as people, we are unable to take any steps in this world without a concern about liability," Atkins said. "And I realize that the city has a big concern about liability in everything we do. However, the fact of that matter is that if you actually do anything you can be sued. It doesn't matter how you do it or what you say when you do it. If you actually do something, somebody could sue you.
"It hurts me that this very nice letter had to go through this morphing that it did," Atkins added. "It took it from being a personal letter in which we were expressing our concerns as people of Eureka and taking responsibility for what happened in 1860 into a letter that says we're sorry that this happened to you without taking responsibility. To me that is a very different statement."
Councilman Mike Newman, his voice heavy with emotion, said that reconciliation is an important part of forgiveness and apologies.
"I just hesitate going with the apology straight out, but I also hear and feel my heart," Newman said. "But as an elected member of this council, to oversee the business of the city of Eureka and to open it up for unwarranted possibilities of any lawsuits, however remote that may be, I just can't feel that I would be in place to OK that."
No Wiyot Tribe member addressed the letter, but a handful of members of the public spoke in favor of sending a letter.
"I'm very excited, and I'm very grateful to be able to witness this particular event because it's unprecedented that we have anyone stepping up to the plate and taking responsibility," a member of the Navajo Tribe said. "It takes a great amount of courage."
Jager said he brought forward the letters for council approval because two of his granddaughters are members of the tribe and because he thought the letter was appropriate with the completion of the World Renewal Ceremony happening later this month -- 154 years after a group of Eureka men stole out to the island under the cover of night and killed the sleeping tribal members. The Wiyot Tribe held its last vigil at the massacre site in February.
Lorna Rodriguez can be reached at 441-0506 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LornaARodriguez.