I ‘ve been pulling my cousin Ethan into adventures with our tribe all summer. We’ve been to a tribal picnic, a language class, a regional museum; we’ve made plans to attend Dee-ni’ Day, an annual social gathering in the fall. He hasn’t said no to me yet, so here we are.
Today, “here” is Yan’-daa-k’vt, aka Yontocket.¹ A former village site, Yan’-daa-k’vt was previously the cultural center of our tribe. It made it onto my must-visit list when I found out that we could hike to it.
But it’s actually more of a nature walk than a hike. The path is wide and mostly graveled, lined with tall grasses and cow pastures. The land in Smith River is flat and fertile, perfect for cattle, which is one of the reasons American settlers drove the indigenous populations out.
The sun is scorching. The last stretch of the hike-slash-walk slopes gently uphill–nothing too taxing–but we’re both sweating and panting by the time we get to the top. The hill is ringed by trees but still exposed to the sun; dry, brittle grass crumbles under our feet with every step. It’s eerily quiet.
I couldn’t find much online about the current state of Yan’-daa-k’vt. I know that it’s incredibly important to our people: traditionally considered to be the center of the world, it was the epicenter of spiritual life for centuries before American encroachment. The Tolowa creation account says it’s where all life began, which is why tribes from surrounding regions used to gather here for Nee-dash, the world-renewal ceremony that their life-ways revolved around.²
It’s also the site of one of the largest massacres to ever occur on US soil. In 1853, back and forth provocations between natives and settlers (mostly gold prospectors) escalated in a massacre of around 500 natives, including women and children.³ They were celebrating their most holy days–the winter solstice, a ten day Nee-dash.
But I could find next to no information regarding the current state of the site. A handful of unhelpful photos, a blog post from a traveller who’d hiked through the area, my nana’s childhood memories of picking wild strawberries along the trail–these compose the entirety of my knowledge about present-day Yan’-daa-k’vt.
Despite my lack of expectations, the barren yellow hillside somehow still surprises me. There are two fenced-in enclosures, overgrown with grass, the wood slats of their fences cracked and dull. A sign on each advertises that they are “Yontocket Memorial Cemeteries”. Newer signs, metal gleaming in the sun, warn visitors that this is an archeological resource area. They call to mind a recent conversation in which Jeri Lynn, a cousin of my papa, mentioned that Yan’-daa-k’vt has been thoroughly looted by passersby searching for “cool” memorabilia.
Ethan and I walk around the perimeters of the cemeteries. We get about a quarter of the way around the second one before realizing that we can see several rock-lined graves, their tombstones too distant to read even when we use our phone cameras to zoom in. Someone has laid silk flowers on these graves; the wind has blown several of them out of the cemetery, onto the hillside. Ethan and I are careful not to step on them.
We wonder aloud about the site–how many are buried here, who left the flowers, why it doesn’t seem well taken care of. While Ethan pulls a particularly vicious thorn out of his heel, I voice my curiosity regarding whether one of our ancestors was burned here–a Chetco Indian visiting a Tolowa village for a holy day, caught in the crossfires of an enormously destructive conflict. I am deceptively light-hearted about the whole ordeal–about the fact that we are standing on ground that was witness to so much death.
And then we leave the dry grass, the scorching hillside, the silent graves. But even as we return to Ethan’s car, the remnants of ghosts seem to cling to the folds of my clothing, to snake their cold fingers down my throat.
It’s an effort to pretend I am untouched.
- I’ve chosen to use the Tolowa spelling of this site, despite the fact that the other version is easier for us native English speakers to comprehend. Yan’-daa-k’vt utilizes the spelling and pronunciation established by the tribe, unlike its anglicized counterpart.
- Nee-dash, pronounced “nay-dosh,” is also sometimes referred to as feather dance. It’s a ceremony used for many purposes, but the winter and summer solstices are considered the most sacred.
- An exact number has proven impossible to calculate. The lowest estimation I’ve found is 150, likely an underestimate made by the attackers. The highest I’ve found is 600, which is, similarly, likely an exaggeration by those attacked. Credible sources estimate the actual number of deaths to be around 400-500. As far as I’ve been able to find, no loss of American life was recorded.