Wiyot Tribal Chairman Theodore Hernandez and his wife, Rose Hernandez. March 2016, Loleta, California.
Wiyot Tribal Chairman Theodore Hernandez and his wife, Rose Hernandez. March 2016, Loleta, California.

Theodore Hernandez: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

I'm Theodore Hernandez, chairman of the Wiyot Tribe, located on the Table Bluff Reservation.

Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname?

My nickname with the youth on the Table Bluff Reservation is Gray Wolf. Most people know me as Ted.

Where is your reservation located?

The Table Bluff Reservation is in Northern California on the outskirts of Loleta, California. Our main office and tribal reservation overlook Humboldt Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Where is your tribe originally from?

Wiyot people have always lived along the Pacific Ocean and around Humboldt Bay. Before the 1850s and the times of the Gold Rush, the Wiyot people covered 40 miles of coastline, going inland about 10 miles. The tribe’s ancestral territory includes Little River to the north, Bear River Ridge to the south, and from the Pacific Coast out to as far as Berry Summit in the northeast and Chalk Mountain in the southeast.

What is a significant point in history for your tribe that you would like to share?

For the Wiyot people there are a couple points in history that are unquestionably significant. We can never forget about the lives we lost during the massacre in the 1860s on Indian Island in Humboldt Bay, as well as on the banks of the Eel River and Mad River. This major event in history practically brought the Wiyot people to extinction. In fact, in the early 1900s there were only about one hundred tribal members.

Shortly after the early 1900s though, the tribe began to prosper again and grow our membership. Sadly, hardship hit the Wiyot people again, this time in 1961 when the California Rancheria Act terminated the legal status of the tribe and the Wiyot effectively became non-Indian Indians. A major thank-you goes out to Wiyot tribal members Albert and Beverly James and their families who fought to get the tribe's rights back and ultimately succeeded. In 1975 the tribe filed suit against the federal government for unlawful termination, and in 1981 federal recognition and trust status was reinstated.

How is your tribal community government set up?

Our Tribal Council is made up of seven tribal members who are elected by the tribal membership. The Wiyot Tribe has a chairman, vice-chairman, secretary, treasurer and three members-at-large who assist with representing the tribal membership.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

The Wiyot Tribe has committees that council members and other interested tribal members sit on. These committees represent our membership and tribe throughout the organization. Traditionally we respect our tribal elders and their wisdom, which is often consulted.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

Council members of the Wiyot tribe have a staggered four-year term for each position on the Tribal Council.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

Our Tribal Council has Business Council meetings twice a month. Tribal membership is also asked to attend these meetings and take part in the public forum. The council also meets at different times throughout the year for committee meetings and economic development meetings. In addition to our Business Council meetings, we also have General Council meetings twice a year.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribal community?

I believe that all my life experiences, both good and bad, helped me to become who I am today and have aided me has a tribal leader. Throughout life I gained experience in everything I did and specifically by taking part in the workforce. I started as a laborer and worked my way up to management, developing business leadership skills. I regained my cultural drive to lead the tribe when I was able to participate in my daughter's coming-of-age dance. This moment in my time brought the tribe's culture back into my life and motivated me to make it my goal to reach tribal leadership and strive to do better for the tribal membership.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

I consider my main responsibility as the tribal chairman to be to provide for and make the best decisions for tribal members. It is especially important to provide for the youth of the tribe and to insure their well-being and success, since they after all will be the future of our tribe.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.

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