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About Tolowa Dunes State Park
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History of Tolowa Dunes State Park
One of the truly remarkable features of this park is the connection you feel to the people who called it home for thousands of years, as you are visiting the ancestral lands of the Tolowa Dee-ni'. If you are walking, boating, beach- combing, fishing, hunting, or observing wildlife, you are enjoying this land as the Tolowa Dee-ni' have done since Creation. The Tolowa Dee-Ni’ homeland starts in southern Del Norte County at Wilson Creek and encompasses the entire Smith River watershed. In southern Oregon, it includes the Sixes and Rogue Rivers and inland to the Applegate Valley. The Tolowa Dee-ni' interacted, traded, and shared many cultural influences with other peoples in the region, including their Athabaskan language.
The largest village, Yontocket, where the first sacred white redwood stood during Creation, is the origin of the people themselves. The Tolowa Dee-ni' account of genesis explains that humans and nature are spiritually interdependent. To sustain daily life, their traditional culture is governed by strict laws of conservation.
With a population that exceeded 10,000, the Tolowa Dee-ni' thrived in this bountiful land until the 1850s when the Gold Rush drew fortune seekers and white settlers to the north coast. As the push to colonize the west and establish statehood for California gained momentum, tensions grew between the newcomers and Indians. Starting in 1851, California's first governors made appropriations for the extermination and eradication of California Indians. The Tolowa Dee-ni' still recall how in the winter of 1853, while hundreds gathered for a World Renewal Ceremony, one of the largest massacres in U.S. history occurred:
One day during 1853 a man saw two soldiers fighting at Lake Earl. One soldier killed the other. When the witness returned to Yan'-daa-k'vt, he expressed concern that our people would be blamed for the soldier’s death. That fall, many gathered to attend Nee-dash. There the local minutemen militia fell upon Yan'-daa-k'vt. 450 of our people died there. The slough ran red with their blood. The flames of the burning houses reached higher as even the babies were thrown to their deaths.- Tolowa Dee-ni'
The next winter, the People convened at Etchulet, the second largest village, for the annual Nee-dash Ceremony. Again, on January 1, 1855, the local militia set fire to their plank houses while they slept and shot them as they came running out or surfaced for air while trying to hide in the lagoon. Seven layers of bodies were burned in the Dance House.
The holocaust that began in 1851 ended in 1856. Some who returned were recaptured, marched away, and confined to distant reservations. Through isolation, disease, broken treaties and mistreatment, the People lost most of their ancestral territory and eighty percent of their population. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, over a hundred years later, Tolowa Dee-ni' were forbidden from visiting the Yontocket and Etchulet Village sites by property owners, but tribal elders secretly returned. The connection to the land could not be broken.