It’s only a short walk from our cabin down to the ocean-side lake that gives this west coast village, north of Eureka, its modern name, Big Lagoon. But there’s a long history inscribed in the landscape.
I head out down Big Lagoon Park Road, passing signs announcing Private Property, Home for Sale, and Neighborhood Watch – “If I don’t call the Sheriff, my neighbor will” – and walk along a narrow, country road, skirting on my right what remains of a spruce forest. Here, for hundreds of years, Yurok basket makers collected tough, pliable roots to make watertight containers. Today, some of my neighbors in the private estate are reluctant to allow Yurok artisans from local communities access to the forest; they worry that the preservation of a tradition might segue into a proprietary claim.
I continue until the road opens dramatically to a stunning backdrop of water, ocean, sky, and low hills. Here the private community of cabin-owners becomes a public county and state park. Fronting the vista is an apron stage of a meadow that serves on summer weekends as an overflow parking lot for day-trippers. About a thousand years ago, Yuroks traveling south from the northwest had the good sense to choose this fecund spot for Opyuweg, one of their largest coastal settlements. The site is “certainly very pleasing to the eye,” conceded one of the first Berkeley anthropologists to map the area in 1909, “and Indians are not at all insensible to scenic beauty.”
The Yurok enjoyed more than a “romantic setting” at Big Lagoon. They also had timber for housing and fires, redwoods to fashion sturdy canoes, and enough food to trade after they had eaten their fill. It’s recalled that mud hens grew so fat that they couldn’t fly, and salmon were easy pickings when they got trapped in nearby Maple Creek. “The lagoon was thick with ducks,” noted a visitor in 1850.
The Yurok had it all at Big Lagoon until the Gold Rush uprooted one of the oldest sedentary communities on the West coast. The descendants of the inhabitants of the region refer to that cataclysmic moment of turmoil and warfare as “the time when the stars fell.” To scholars, what happened in Northern California was emblematic of “the greatest human demographic disaster in the historical record.”
The miners, settlers, entrepreneurs, and adventurers who headed north or east when they disembarked from ships in Trinidad harbor in 1850 took a route that inevitably went by Opyuweg. Some Yurok hired themselves out as guides and beasts of burden; some women lived with or were appropriated by white miners and settlers; some fled to join a guerrilla movement in the hills; and many died from syphilis and in massacres.
Within sixty years of contact with whites, the Yurok population declined by almost seventy-five percent, and between 1850 and 1950 life expectancy halved.
As I walk towards the lagoon on this cloudy summer day in 2008, I’m reminded of how close to this place in 1850 Thomas Gihon witnessed his traveling companions engage in the “cowardly and wanton murder of poor naked savages.” A few weeks later, a vigilante force swept through Big Lagoon, burned the main village, and took prisoners back to Trinidad where they were executed by a firing squad. “I was associated with men who thought nothing of murder,” lamented Gihon. “My heart was heavy…. I had never seen such an affair before, and it made me sick at heart.”
I continue past the unmarked site of Opyuweg on my left, past garbage and recycling cans and public toilets on the right, over a paved parking lot to a lovely wooden bench perched on a grassy mound, looking out over Big Lagoon ahead, and the beach and Pacific Ocean to the left. If the redwood forest – so central to the Yurok economy – had not been clear-cut some fifty years ago when lumber companies owned most of Big Lagoon, it would be visible to my right.
Here in front of the bench is an informational plaque in the style of a triptych. Its theme emphasizes how Big Lagoon is an extraordinary confluence of natural and social elements: “Where streams and ocean mingle… An assembly of wildlife... Gathering in the shadows of tradition.” Two sections of the plaque educate us about the waterways and bird-life of the area.
The third section informs us that Big Lagoon used to be called Oketo or Where It Is Calm, so named by the “Yurok tribe who first came to this area hundreds of years ago.” To illustrate that “ceremonies are important to Yurok life,” there’s a photograph of Yuroks celebrating the Brush Dance. Pity that it was taken miles away from here on the Klamath River.
Another photo – of a young boy and an Indian women holding up two large, recently caught salmon – is designed, I suppose, to illustrate everyday Yurok life. But this too was taken on the Klamath, around 1918. By this date, it was tourists, not Yuroks, who mostly fished Big Lagoon. A text accompanying the photograph identifies the white boy as Harry Roberts, while the second subject – the celebrated Native American leader, Alice Spott – is reduced to a generic “Yurok woman.”
Visitors can sit comfortably on the bench, enjoying the view, undisturbed. We are not prompted to consider why the stars fell on Big Lagoon in the 1850s or how Yurok women continued to live here after the Gold Rush against all odds. It’s a challenge, I know, to reconcile this wondrous place with its sorrowful past. But the solution is not to shroud our public history in amnesia. There’s time to correct this. As Toni Morrison says, “it’s never too late to honor the dead.”