Mad River Union
TRINIDAD – A lawsuit against the City of Trinidad claiming it failed to protect an ancient Indian village may go to trial later this year.
The lawsuit stems from the illegal cutting of trees and vegetation three and a half years ago at the Tsurai Village, a 12.5 acre archaeological site located on bluffs overlooking Trinidad harbor.
In June 2010, Sam Pennisi and his wife Sharon Ferrett paid a professional tree cutter to remove vegetation and trees on the Tsurai Village site, located below their Wagner Street home.
After the clearcutting, the Tsurai Ancestral Society and individual Tsurai filed a lawsuit against both the couple and the City of Trinidad, which owns the village site.
The Ancestral Society claims that the city is legally obligated to protect the property per the Tsurai Management Plan, which came about during previous litigation with resident John Frame and the Ancestral Society. The Agreement was signed by the City, the Tsurai Ancestral Society and others in 2007.
The city is supposed to erect signs, install fences and take other measures to protect the village, but has failed to do so, according to Zachary Zwerdling, an attorney representing the Tsurai Ancestral Society. No signs were posted at the location of the Pennisi/Ferrett cutting. Pennisi/Ferrett claim that they would not have pursued the cutting if signs were present advising that the property was off-limits and protected.
The lawsuit with Pennisi and Ferrett may be resolved seperately through mediation, Zwerdling said.
The Tsurai Ancestral Society had hoped to settle its case with the City of Trinidad through mediation, Zwerdling said, but the City refused and decided to seek a dismissal of the case instead.
On Dec. 13 Superior Court Judge Dale Reinholtzen ruled that the Tsurai case had merit and could proceed. At a hearing on Jan 13, the judge may set the date for a trial.
Meanwhile, the Trinidad City Council will discuss the case at its meeting today, Jan. 8 at Trinidad Town Hall. The litigation will be discussed in closed session at 6 p.m. The regular meeting begins at 7 p.m.
Trinidad City Manager Karen Suiker didn’t have any comment about the lawsuit.
The tree cutting was just the most recent insult to the Tsurai Village, which once spanned the entire City of Trinidad. It is the southernmost village within Yurok territory, and was home for the Tsurai for thousands of years. According to information provided to the Union by Zwerdling, U.S. Indian Agents ordered the village’s inhabitants in 1851 to relocate to a reservation near the mouth of the Eel River. The Tsurai refused.
In 1903, a sheriff and two lumber company employees forced residents on the southern side of the village from their homes, tossed their belongings onto the road and burned down their homes.
The last village residents were Humpback Jim and his wife, who lived there until 1916. Non-Indian residents dumped garbage on the bluff, which contaminated their well. This forced them to abandon the site.
Then came the amateur archaeologists, who looted grave sites for their personal collections, leaving behind human remains strewn across the village. The looting of the grave sites continued for decades, with the most recent known grave desecration taking place in the 1990s.
The Tsurai Ancestral Society, created in 1978 to care for the village site and maintain the burial grounds, is made up of lineal descendants of the Tsurai.