A tree cutting that occurred nearly four years ago at the site of an ancient Tsuari village in Trinidad is making its way through the courts, with village descendants calling on the city to protect the area near the lighthouse.
The origins of the civil case date back to June 2010, when former Trinidad Planning Commissioner Sam Pennisi and his wife Sharon Ferrett hired a company to cut the trees, which are on city property. In 2012, Pennisi and Ferrett agreed to pay the city of Trinidad $20,000.
The Tsurai Ancestral Society served the city of Trinidad with a second civil lawsuit this week. The first was filed in June 2011.
”The area is technically owned by Trinidad,” said Zach Zwerdling, an attorney representing the society of Tsurai village descendants. “There was a formal understanding between the city and the society, as well as the Yurok Tribe, in 2007, called the Tsurai Management Plan, that the city would take management steps to protect the land.”
Zwerdling said Trinidad asked the court to dismiss the first case.
”The court denied the dismissal request,” Zwerdling said. “Now, the first lawsuit is scheduled for trial in November. Trinidad doesn't appear to be interested in living up to their obligation to protect the property.”
City Manager Karen Suieker disagreed. She said Trinidad strongly supports the protection and preservation of the site.
”I think the city has demonstrated sincere effort to work toward a reasonable resolution, but is limited by financial and other resources,” Suieker said.
Zwerdling said the placement of signage is an important component of the plan, yet Trinidad has done nothing to create or install signage advising the public that the area is sacred and off-limits.
”The tree cutter in the first case testified that he would not have done the cutting had there been a sign present,” Zwerdling said. “Signage is a low-cost solution that would help begin the process of implementing the management plan and preventing further desecration of the site.”
Suieker said Trinidad has previously expressed willingness -- and is still willing -- to install signs that the society believes would help to protect and preserve the site.
Gene Brundin, chairman of the Yurok Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Implementation Committee, said the level of cooperation and diligence in protecting Native American sites has always been inconsistent among local governments and agencies.
”Trinidad shouldn't be making promises that can't be kept down the road,” Brundin said. “But, signs could be a double-edged sword. Saying something along the lines of 'keep out' will actually attract some people.”
Marlon Sherman, associate professor and chair of Native American studies at Humboldt State University, said the village at Tsurai is one of the oldest mentioned in history books.
”As such, it deserves ultimate protection,” Sherman said. “Much, much more protection than Trinidad has been willing to offer so far.
”Most efforts from local governments don't include protecting Native American issues in planning processes,” Sherman said. “In regards to protecting Native American interests, you shouldn't even have to ask 'why?' or 'how much?' It's a matter of law and moral justice.”
Sherman pointed to the Trinidad lighthouse, which he said is painted every year.
”It's nothing, in terms of meaning, compared to the old village of Tsurai,” Sherman said. “So why is no one loving and protecting that land? That's my question to Trinidad.”
Jillian Singh is a reporter for the Times-Standard. She can be reached at 441-0509 or Jsingh@times-standard.com