Ted Hernandez, Wiyot Tribal Chair, leading tribal members in the opening ceremony celebrating the purchase of the undeveloped coastal wetland and upland.

Maria Rodriguez

An Indigenous Community Land Trust Is Creating Housing Through #LandBack

In Eureka, California, the Wiyot tribe has seen historic urban Indigenous land return victories. Now, through a unique legal model, it’s creating housing for former foster youth on its ancestral land.

Story by Emily Nonko

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A community land trust controlled by the Wiyot Tribe of California, and envisioned as a vehicle for Indigenous land return, is taking on its first project. After developing a unique structure in which the Dishgamu Humboldt land trust exists as a unit of the tribe, the Wiyot will rehabilitate two Victorian homes into youth housing, plus a wraparound service facility, in the city of Eureka — the heart of the tribe’s ancestral homeland.

“We’re looking at a different way of doing things,” says Michelle Vassel, tribal administrator for the Wiyot Tribe. “A tribally-owned community land trust is new … we are really thinking of this in terms of self-governance, sovereignty, and the ability to keep this tribally controlled over thousands of years.”

The Wiyot people have stewarded the land in and around Humboldt Bay in Northern California, near present-day Eureka, for thousands of years. Dishgamu Humboldt, formed in 2020, is the result of longstanding Land Back advocacy led by the tribe.

Much of the advocacy centers on Tuluwat Island, a sacred place for the tribe and the site of a mass murder. On Feb. 25, 1860, a group of local white men brutally slaughtered over 100 sleeping Wiyot women, children and elders while men gathered provisions for the Wiyot’s annual renewal ceremony.

In the 1970s — during which the Wiyot nation had been “terminated,” or derecognized, by federal policy — Wiyot tribal chair Albert James requested the return of a city-owned portion of the island. Though the request wasn’t honored, advocacy continued and ramped up in the 1990s. After extensive fundraising within the tribe, the Wiyot bought one and a half acres on the island in 2000.

“Then it was 15 years of slow and steady work, that cost millions upon millions of dollars, to clean the land,” Vassel says. Supported by environmental grants, the Wiyot removed tens of thousands of tons of toxins, hazardous waste and invasive species.

In 2004, the tribe again requested the return of the island. Eureka’s city council voted unanimously to return 40 acres, with title restrictions. A decade later, the Wiyot people held their renewal ceremony on the island, the first since the 1860 murders.

In 2015, the tribe requested the remaining city-owned portion of the island. After four years of work, the city of Eureka returned the remaining 270 acres in November 2019, this time with no title restrictions. According to Vassel, Eureka is the first municipality in U.S. history to voluntarily return land to a tribe without restrictions on how they can use it.

The Indigenous-led land trust will be a vehicle for Land Back initiatives “happening in real time.”

An aerial view of Humboldt Bay taken from the southwest. Tuluwat Island can be seen on the top left. (Photo by Robert Campbell / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library)

In this time, Vassel connected to David Cobb, who went on to co-found the local solidarity economy nonprofit Cooperation Humboldt. “One of the first things I did was ask for a consultation with the Wiyot Tribe because we were going to start doing land work,” Cobb explains of the nonprofit’s 2017 founding. Cooperation Humboldt committed to paying 1% of its gross revenue to the Wiyot as an “honor tax” and encouraged other local organizations to do the same.

Cobb served as an informal “thought partner” in development of a tribally-led community land trust. He ultimately left his role at Cooperation Humboldt and the tribe hired him in April of 2022 as an advancement manager.

Vassel, Cobb and the Wiyot Tribal Council came up with a unique model for the community land trust to ensure it’d be tribally led. “To our knowledge, nobody’s ever done this,” Cobb says. The land trust is not structured as a standalone organization or nonprofit — it is actually a unit of the Wiyot tribe, with the tribal council serving as the informal board of directors.

In February 2020, the Wiyot Tribal Council voted to formalize the Dishgamu Humboldt land trust as a unit of the tribe. Dishgamu means “love” in Soulatluk, the Wiyot language.

The land trust will be a vehicle for Land Back initiatives “happening in real time,” as Cobb puts it. Last year, two private landowners returned a 60- and two-acre plot of forested land outside Eureka. This year, another private owner returned a smaller parcel within city limits. The tribe envisions a mix of land restoration, eco villages, cooperative home ownership opportunities, low-income housing and worker-owned cooperatives.

The goal is to develop housing and community resources to serve not only the tribe but also the wider Eureka community. “We want to stabilize housing — it comes out of this need we see to help Wiyot people remain in the area,” Vassel says. “But we also see that everybody else is in the same boat as us.”

With support of a $14 million state grant, the trust purchased an office building and two single-family Victorian homes in Eureka for the Jaroujiji Youth Housing Project. This year the Dishgamu Humboldt team will begin converting the properties to hold 39 interim and permanent housing units designed for homeless youth, with space for wraparound services.

While Wiyot youth will be prioritized, the housing will be available for other vulnerable youth, many of whom age out of the foster care system and struggle to find housing. “A lot of services for youth just aren’t available in this area, so they get sent out of Eureka,” explains Vassel. “We hope to fill the gap for kids in a transitional place who need more services and support.”

The goal is to wrap the Jaroujiji Youth Housing Project within the year. Vassel believes this first project will be a powerful model for the work ahead. “We want to take things that already exist and turn them into things that we need,” she says.

The trust will respond to a request for proposals by the city of Eureka to build housing on city-owned parking lots; their team has two proposals for elder housing and family housing, with sustainable building practices.

Crucially, the community land trust allows the tribe to be flexible, from receiving Land Back properties to responding to city requests for housing. Full Spectrum Capital Partners, an organization supporting undercapitalized communities access funding for restorative and regenerative projects, became a collaborative partner to help secure additional funds.

“It really gives the tribe choices,” Vassel says of the model. “One arm of the land trust is about conserving land, and the other arm is about properties we own and take care of, and environmentally and culturally restore.”

In the broader movement for Land Back, the Wiyot people are leading the way after generations of this work. “We recreated the wheel to figure out how to do this,” Vassel says, “to make sure this remains tribally led, that it stays attached to the tribe forever.”

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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