It Takes A Village: Interview With The Tsurai Village Protectors

Descendants of the Native American Tsurai [Yurok] Village in Trinidad, no longer have to look at symbols that represent white settlement and the conquest of their ancestral lands. After a 12-day occupation of the memorial lighthouse in Trinidad, the lighthouse has been moved down the road and housed temporarily by the Seascape Restaurant.

The Trinidad Civic Club owns the parcel of land where the lighthouse sits and was allocated this piece of land by white business/landowners in 1949. The parcel of land and the memorial lighthouse that was built on it, are directly in the middle of the Native American Tsurai Village. Some of the descendants of Tsurai who still live locally, have been in constant battles with the City of Trinidad in their attempts to preserve their sacred village site.

Memorial Lighthouse location before removal

When the Trinidad Civic Club bypassed public input and received an emergency permit to move their replica lighthouse 22-feet, the descendants of the Tsurai Yurok Village and their allies stood up and demanded that dialogue be reopened to the public, on a new location for the lighthouse.

Lucas Garcia, Stan Wood, Chaya Zivolich and Thomas Joseph III are the four protectors who climbed the lighthouse in attempts to halt construction plans of the Trinidad Civic Club. These four individuals played an integral role in the lighthouse being moved from its original location because they understood the importance of physical bodies as tools of disruption in organizing.

View of location after memorial lighthouse removal

How long have you been in Humboldt County and what has your experience been like?

Lucas: “I am a descendant of the Tsurai [Yurok] Village so I definitely have a deep connection here. I mean I know that this place still has a lot of racism, I’ve experienced it throughout my life, I don’t see how people can not see it. But for the most part, it has been great.”

Stan: “Six years. I am from Florida so in some aspects it is really, really nice but the longer I am here, the more I am learning about the history of the place and there is a lot of hidden stuff. Maybe when you first get here you don’t see it because it’s not right on the surface, but it’s just beneath it. I spend the majority of my time in the woods so I’ve really appreciated connecting with the wilderness.”

Chaya: “I have been here five years. I do not know about a lot about my relatives because most of them perished in the Holocaust, so when I am learning and we have an opportunity as white folks to be on the right side of history, I want to perpetuate ending this history of violence, or at least try to combat it.”

Thomas: “These are my ancestral lands. The history of this region does not go too far back before we start talking about the genocide of Indigenous people of this land. The elderly people in our communities are children of perpetrators of the indigenous peoples. So the mindset is not too far off from those type of genocidal thoughts which once plagued this region. This region is gorgeous, it’s beautiful, it’s my home. But I would not neglect the fact of the brutal history of our area and that the people who caused that history, their families are still in positions of power.

What was the deciding factor which led to climbing the lighthouse?

Stan: “The idea was how can we stop them from continuing work, to re-open the dialogue. If they were not able to work, maybe that would re-open the conversation. I do not think any of us thought they would continue working on it, but they still did.”

Lucas: “I felt the whole lighthouse shift and they had the audacity to say ‘well don’t you guys think it’s a little bit dangerous to be up there while we are working?’ But it’s like, why are y’all working when we are up here? The decision was kind of last minute, because the emergency order didn’t give us much time so we had to think of something quick.”

There has been some debate on the location of the lighthouse and Indigenous gravesites. When you say the lighthouse sits on top of a gravesite, is this in the literal sense, or because the lighthouse sits on a bluff which overlooks the Tsurai lands below?

Stan: “That information is not shared publicly because of history.”

Thomas: “This happens when you talk to a person who tries to justify the [original] move. ‘We are not going to listen to the indigenous folks of this land because they don’t know.’ They are justifying their own colonial mindset to push white supremacy through and we are just ‘ignorant Indians.’ It is important to know that the city of Trinidad has a long history of grave-robbing.”

Lucas: “Yea, we personally do not give the locations of gravesites for that particular reason.”

What kind of response did you receive from the community of Trinidad?

Lucas: “Mostly positive, very few negative comments.”

Stan: “At first we did not believe that the city of Trinidad would support it. I was worried because I had lived in Trinidad for a couple years and I know there are progressive, liberal people but only some of them are really into actually doing things. More people from the community actually showed up and I was really surprised. There are bold activist people who live in that community who did not show up for whatever reason. People would bring us food. There was that lady who would bring us cinnamon buns, another lady brought us hot chocolate in the middle of the night.”

Lucas: “We ate good down there. Breakfast burritos, albacore melts. People made sure we were good in all aspects.”

Thomas: “I don’t think we ever went without, we always had everything we needed. We even had community members offer parcels of land and funding to help with the [lighthouse] move.”

What was it like camping at the lighthouse and what helped you to push through, despite freezing temperatures at night?

Thomas: “The resolve was always the same. We are going to stay here, even if it takes months. We are not going to allow this village to be trodden on anymore. But the days were amazing, sleeping under the stars, seeing the sun rise, seeing the sun set. We had eels and hawks and whales come and visit us. I don’t think there was a greater space to be in all the earth honestly.”

Chaya: “Community makes things a lot easier. We had a really strong bond between everybody and everyone had their own part and contributed in their own way. That was really heart-warming and I believe rare in general.”

Stan: “The Yurok Tribe Tribal Council coming out and putting up their flag was really big too. That was amazing. Here is the larger community coming to protect this place. We are coming from different parts but we’re all here for the same reasons. It was really amazing.”

Did you have any fears during the time spent occupying the lighthouse?

Chaya: “The B & B [Trinidad Bay Bed & Breakfast].”

Thomas: “In the world that we are in right now, seeing the rise of white-nationalist and white supremacy in a more violent way, I know that those people live in our region as well. I did have fears of drive-by shootings or counterprotesters, protesting the protectors, but none of that happened. Of course we had our ignorant neighbors from the B&B but for the most part it was cool. It is always important to be ready.”

Lucas: “I wasn’t too worried. I had quite the experience down there when my great-grandmother Eliza, who was the last medicine woman of our village and a powerful one at that, came to me and let me know that she was down there watching over us and protecting us. I continued to talk to her several times a day and pray at least three times a day, letting our ancestors know who we are and what we are down there for.”

Chaya: “I was worried about white nationalist or us getting raided in the middle of the night so I wasn’t really sleeping to see it, or hear it, if it happened but it never happened.”

Why was it important for you to be called protectors, rather than protestors?

Thomas: “We were not protesting anything we are protecting the right of Indigenous people to sustain a culture, to sustain a livelihood. When you protest, you are protesting something that you don’t agree with, versus standing up and protecting something that is sacred. Protesters have such a negative connotation. Everyone can relate to protecting what you love and care for.”

Lucas: “That’s why that “All Graves Matter” [sign] was really important. Once we started talking about how we are trying to protect our gravesites, that’s when people could relate because they do not want that to happen to their family or their ancestors.”

How did it make you feel to be involved in the occupation of the lighthouse and not get arrested?

Lucas: “I feel relieved, I am glad that I did not go to jail. I was prepared for it, to make sure that that lighthouse did not cause further damage.”

Chaya: “It was surprising. I was really surprised that we had zero arrest.”

Stan: “I was prepared to get arrested. I have been arrested before for stupid things when protesting, when I wasn’t even doing anything. So to do this and not get arrested I am still like, seriously no one got arrested? Did I get arrested and maybe just don’t remember? I think that’s the other side of it too. The Civic Club and the city showing up wanting to engage. I personally have not given them enough credit but thats really admirable on their part too because they could have easily done that but they didn’t.”

Thomas: “I think that would have made them look more shameful, but they could have. Someone almost got arrested the first day, an Indigenous female because she refused to leave the site. But there was a white male who also refused but they did not want to arrest him, so we called the cops out on their blatant racism. That was a close call but they let her go.”

Where there any sacrifices that you made to be at the lighthouse 12 days?

Lucas: “Family. My family did come out, but they had to go back and forth over the mountains to come down.”

Chaya: “I got fired.” 

Thomas: “Time with family and I did lose my job as a community organizer at the True North Organizing Network.”

Was it worth it?

Group in unison: “Yes.”

Stan: “I think it is especially worth it because we won. Thomas O’Rourke, the [Yurok] Tribal Chair, one thing I remember him saying was how he was really glad because they won and it was the first time they had won there in a really long time.”

Thomas: “The win for this community will be everlasting. We had youth who were out there, we had the next generation of Tsurai Village descendants who were out there, they will remember this for a lifetime. We also have people who weren’t there that are members of this community who saw Indigenous peoples voices be lifted up and heard–which could be the first time in this region for some of those folks. They see that we exist and had to stop our lives to protect our grave-sites and villages. When you see people in your community who have to do that, it’s calling out the systemic racism that’s deeply embedded in our region.”

Lucas: “It really is a historic moment. It’s still kind of shocking to think about it that way because for me it’s just a normal thing, I protected my village, that’s what I am supposed to do. That’s what we are all supposed to do, protect what’s sacred to us.”

About slausongirl

Slauson Girl is a South Central native who has a love for journalism, history and all things Hip-Hop. She holds a B.A in Critical Race & Gender Theory & a Minor in Journalism. Follow Me on IG @Slausongirl

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